Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Deer Kill 12-21-15

It's not unusual to see something like this in the Methow Valley. It’s unusual for me and for many other people I know however so I’m documenting it.

Today is the last day before the winter solstice, a turning point, and I am at a turning point as well.  In May, I finally just lost my patience with finding the right time to move to the rural place where I could write and contemplate in quiet. I made a spur of the moment decision to rent a house on a hill in Winthrop, WA and moved in in July. It’s December and I’m at the midpoint of my year. 

This morning I went outside to check a live trap in my garage. I’ve already caught a packrat/woodrat in there and something else is now living there, tearing into a trash bag, frantically stumbling over loose wood in the rafters when I go to my car at night, and leaving a trail that looks like cat prints and scat. It could be a feral cat but checking on the tracks and scat there’s a slight possibility it’s a fox. Cats don’t usually poop in the middle of their own trail.

As I walked to the garage about ten ravens flew up from the vicinity of an apple tree in a small field next to the driveway. I thought they might have just rested there for the night. I turned back to look at the trap in the garage and it was tripped with nothing in it—again. This is a smarter critter than the woodrat, or perhaps it’s just bigger and can’t get into this trap. When I returned to the driveway I saw a circle of blood in the snow under the tree ravens fled. Two more ravens, sentinels, I imagine, flew away when I got closer. I went into the house and got my phone/camera.

The magpies flew back and forth over my head waiting for me to go. 
When I got back outside a group of magpies flew off—not so far away as the ravens. They stuck around chattering to each other from a distance.

I tried to find the start of a blood trail from the the edge of the snow bank, but I couldn’t see one so I followed a deer track from the road. I post-holed to the top of my boots at my knees where the deer track ended and saw what appeared to be the site of a bloody feast. 

I stood outside the circle with some reverence for what had died. All I could see was spots of blood, fur, and a huge kidney shaped organ.

It seemed to me that a pack of coyotes might have surprised a sleeping yearling in a spot outside the circle. If there was any death battle, I wouldn’t have heard it while I was sleeping in the far side of the house.

The circle of blood told me little more than something had died. I didn’t see any canine tracks just those of deer and birds. The kidney shaped organ was chewed on one side and packed with bits of straw like chewed grass. It had to be the rumen of a deer; unlikely to provide any nourishment to any predator. There were no bones. Ravens wouldn’t take bones away. What did—coyotes, a wolf, or a cougar?  Cougars have been seen around here.

It was already snowing for about the twentieth time so far this year and it was covering everything fast so I just took as many pictures as I could. I've contacted a few local people to see if they would have any thoughts about what happened here and I haven't gotten any answers yet.

Update 12-31-15

I have had replies from 2 Washington Department of Wildlife (DFW) biologists, a local naturalist, and a store owner whom I’ve talked to before about identifying local fauna. All agreed that it’s hard to say what the predator was without footprints but two of them think it was likely a cougar. Their reasoning was the similar.

The naturalist said:

“I would guess it’s a cougar kill.  That’s the most common and likely thing that happened, and from the bits of things I can see in the photo that’s what I would go with.  Cougars are very tidy and usually drag remains off to bury somewhere more secluded and eat later over the course of a few days.  If it was a deer that was hit on the road and then made it that far and died, and was getting feasted on by coyotes and birds, the deer would still be there.  (Cougar rarely eat something they didn’t kill).  Coyotes rarely kill full-sized deer, but you’re right it could have been a yearling.  Still, I think you’d see much of the deer still there if a coyote was involved.”

From one of the DFW biologists:

“When coyotes and wolves kill an animal, they generally eat it on site.  They will carry a leg away, scatter the remains but usually there is something still at the kill site.  When a cougar kills an animal, they drag or carry (depending on the size of the animals) it away.  My guess given there is no body that a cougar killed the deer but that really is just a best guess without being on site.”

The idea that there might have been a cougar hunting less than 100 feet from my door gave me some pause. The night before the kill happened I walked up the hill from my brother's house relishing the cold, the moonlight and the coyotes howling down on the valley floor. Today I looked in the snow for cougar prints on the road as I walked above my house. I thought I saw some until I realized someone had been snowshoeing on the road and the marks were more likely from a ski pole. I don't like to admit it but I'm a little spooked. I like  knowing a cougar might be out there but if I ever see one, I hope it will quietly walk away,