Blood. Guts. Bones.
The past few days have delivered some up-close and raw aspects of nature.
If you’re made queasy by the sight of blood, large animal bones or small animal organs, you may want to skip this post. Nothing horrific, but nature isn’t always wildflowers and butterflies. Sometimes, nature gets real.
I’ve been writing about the voles Conall catches and kills in my yard, and how I started leaving them on top of the snow inside the fenced area to see if the ravens would take them. They do, leading me to name this relationship Conall’s Food Bank for Ravens.
Usually the ravens wait until the dogs and I leave home for our morning run or walk before taking voles from the food bank. I often see one of them flying over the house, checking the yard, as I drive away.
The morning of January 15th, we stayed home. There was one vole on the snow, so I hoped to see a raven take it. I was working in my home office that morning. The boys were outside on the deck, on a different side of the yard. I saw a raven fly from the forest toward the house and, camera handy, was able to capture some (poor) photos as it quickly dropped into the yard, snatched the vole – with its beak rather than talons, which for some reason surprised me – before flying over the fence and into the field, where it landed. Another surprise; I assumed it would return to the trees. Within seconds, its mate joined it in the field. (Ravens mate for life. Sigh. Sharing may be a good reason why.) Unfortunately, the ravens’ companionable meal together was interrupted when Finn spotted them and started barking. I’m as much to blame because I tried to sneak out into the yard for better photos, which was a clue to Finn to investigate and irritate.
To my ongoing surprise, Conall is able to supply one and often two or three voles to his food bank every day. I learned after some basic research that vole populations peak roughly every three years. Clearly this is a peak year in my area.
The ravens roost at night in the tall forest trees nearby, to the north. I enjoy watching them make a final survey of the area at sunset, calling to each other. If Finn sees them, he barks and herds them away as they fly over, and because in his mind he’s always successful, rewarded by their disappearance, he persists.
The morning of January 20th, I took the boys for a walk in the valley. When we left, there were two voles in the food bank, found by Conall the night before and laid by me on the snow in the usual spot.
When we returned from our walk, I checked on the food bank supply by looking out my office window. Both voles were gone.
That afternoon, I ventured into the yard to do my daily cleanup of dog bombs (aka poop), pitching them over the fence into the snow-covered field. When I reached the east side of the yard, I saw a vole on the snow, with what appeared to be tufts of vole fur around it. I wondered if one of the ravens had started to eat the vole there but was interrupted when we drove home that morning.
Until I got closer. What was that brownish blob next to the vole? Bird poop?
I felt like I’d stumbled upon a crime scene. What was I seeing? Peering closer, things began to make sense: this vole’s internal organs had been removed.
Seeing a small hole in the vole’s side, I realized the long, brownish matter was its digestive tract. I’m not sure what the worm-like thing on the snow above it is, but I’m guessing the red-brown piece in the upper left of the photo is a liver.
Oh, the carnage!
But why such a mess? And left by whom? Since I didn’t place the vole there, I have no idea whether it was one of the two I’d left on the north side of the yard before leaving that morning, or a different one a predator found on its own the night before or while we were gone. Was the predator one of the ravens used to finding voles here, or a red-tailed hawk, or a great horned owl? Did they get what they wanted (certain internal organs) and intend to leave the rest, or was their meal interrupted?
I decided to experiment.
Using a shovel, I scooped up the eviscerated vole and its organs and moved them to the north side of the yard where I usually leave Conall’s food bank contributions. Ironically, as I was doing this, Conall caught yet another vole, so I placed it near the eviscerated one.
And waited. Since it was late afternoon I figured nothing would happen until the next day. And because ravens aren’t picky about their food, known to eat carrion, I expected the eviscerated vole and its organs to eventually disappear.
The morning of January 21st brought a light snow. At dawn I checked and both voles were still in the yard. The boys and I then went for a run in the forest, returning around 10:30 am. Conall’s “fresh” vole was gone, but the eviscerated one and its organs were still there, barely visible under the new snow.
I decided to pitch them over the fence into the field before they became completely buried under snow.
An hour later, while I was working at my computer in my home office, a raven descended and hovered over the vole and guts for a second before dropping to the snow and taking one of the organ pieces (I couldn’t tell which one). I waited, watching, thinking it would come back for the rest of the vole and organs, but it never did.
Interesting. I didn’t think ravens were that picky. A mystery.
Ah, but this story of voles, blood and bones isn’t over.
That January 21st morning run in the forest with my dogs continued the theme.
Early on, heading up a steep wildlife trail packed by a snowmobile, Conall started digging in the snow just off trail. He dug deep, and wouldn’t listen when I tried to convince him to stop so we could continue up the trail. As I started taking video, Conall uncovered an elk hoof.
Conall pulled and pulled on that hoof, but the snow was heavy and it appeared the hoof was still attached to an entire leg. I didn’t think he’d be able to pull it all out, so I quit videoing. I wish I’d kept going, though, because a few seconds later, Conall managed to free the entire leg – hoof to shoulder blade – from the snow. It was like watching a calf being birthed, all long legs exploding from an impossibly small opening after much pulling from a veterinarian.
Conall was so proud of himself! After much coaxing, though, he agreed to leave the elk leg behind so we could continue our run. I assured him we’d see it again on our way back.
The boys and I eventually reached a Forest Service road high up on the slope. Two days earlier we discovered that a logging tractor had been on it, making nice, wide packed tracks for us to run on. I was eager to enjoy that unexpected “grooming” again.
I was following Finn in one track, Conall in the other. At about the same time Finn and I noticed something dark on the inner edge of the track, covered partly by the new snow. I thought it was a leaf or pine cone that had fallen from a tree. Finn stopped to sniff it, and…it moved!
Finn pounced. He got it in his mouth, shook his head hard, then dropped it. Suddenly Conall was beside him. Conall – and I – could see it was a vole. To my relief, Conall quickly finished the job that Finn started.
As I was congratulating Finn on actually catching a vole – I’ve only seen him do so once before, and he was so surprised that he quickly spit it out and it ran away unharmed – he laid down on the snow in the track and started licking a front paw.
That’s when I saw the bright red of fresh blood. Quite a bit of it. Too much. What the hell?
Did the vole bite Finn’s foot? That didn’t seem likely, especially since his pads wouldn’t bleed like that from a tiny vole bite. Maybe the vole managed to bite the soft skin between pads? I’ve watched as Conall caught voles, peeling his lips back and away so the vole couldn’t bite him, holding and squeezing the vole carefully between his front teeth to kill it, spitting it out if it was biting, carefully pinching it again until it was dead or sometimes punching it with his front paws instead. (I actually have a video of this, but won’t torture you with it. This post is already gruesome enough.) I learned, watching Conall, that voles bite defensively and their bites can hurt.
Thinking Finn’s foot was injured, I quickly assessed my options. We were roughly two miles from the car. It might be a slow and bloody walk back, but I couldn’t imagine a cut caused by a vole bite would prevent him from making his own way back.
I tried to check Finn’s foot for a cut but he wasn’t cooperating. He got up and started walking up the track. No limp. No sign of pain. He was eager to continue our run. He left a couple spots of bright red blood on the snow, then…nothing, no more blood. His foot prints were clean on the pristine, white snow.
Aha! Suddenly I realized what had happened: the vole bit Finn’s tongue!
I was overcome with relief. Tongues, when cut, bleed fast, then stop almost as quickly. Finn wasn’t licking an injured paw. He was simply trying to remove an ice ball from his foot – something he does regularly when we’re running on snow – and his tongue happened to have a cut that was bleeding. I laughed out loud at the craziness of it.
Assured Finn was fine, we continued our run, eventually turning around at a point where I figured we’d have between five and six miles total distance. When we headed back down the wildlife track, Conall forged ahead, eager to return to his prised and prized elk leg.
Again, with much coaxing, Conall left the elk leg beside the trail, where we will undoubtedly find it the next time we head up there. Unless that sneaky fox that stole an earlier piece of Conall’s forest treasure decides to steal this one as well.
I’m no fan of gratuitous blood and gore. I can’t abide movies or books that purvey either. I loathe cruelty, which is why I loathe thrill/sport hunting and the trapping of fur-bearing animals. But witnessing nature’s daily life-and-death struggles and the evidence left behind is, to me, different. It’s tolerable. Informative. Even…life affirming. Because in the natural world, a life lost means other lives sustained. It’s the essence of the natural word, writ large and bold, if we’re willing to see and understand.
The circle of life. Uncensored.
Feature image: enjoying the forest with the dogs, January 19, 2021.