Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

So, yesterday it got up to almost 60*F here outside of Chicago. My husband got out of work early, so we decided to go for a walk at one of our favorite wild places, where there’s a large population of owls.  We’ve never seen owls there before — although we’ve seen plenty of squirrels, deer, rabbits, hawks, and possums, plus enough footprints and scat to indicate a healthy coyote population — but I was still hoping to find some owl pellets, or maybe some shed deer antlers (it’s about that time here).  I asked the forest spirits to show me a gift, if they were willing. I had brought along a gift of my own to give: steel-cut oats, chopped walnuts, green grapes, a banana, locally made maple syrup, and raisins.

We started out on the walk around 4:15 PM; sunset is at 5:40 PM here currently. This meant we were getting going just before dusk (my favorite liminal time).  There’s been a fair bit of rain here recently, and what little snow we did get this winter has melted, so things were pretty boggy.  Aside from my offering, I also always bring plastic bags to pick up any garbage I find, as we’re not the only ones who walk in these woods.

Maybe around 4:45 or a little later, we had gotten to the top of a hill, just before the path dips down into a ravine.  I was looking around quite a bit, on the lookout for garbage as well as anything else, and spotted something white a fair bit off the path.  Now, I’d spotted white things a couple of times already on this trip, and each time, they’d turned out to be mold-encrusted sticks, so I wasn’t really anticipating anything else, but I headed on over to where it was, maybe 500 feet off the path.

And then I just started shouting, “OH MY GOSH!” at the top of my lungs (I devolve to the vocabulary of a 10-year-old when really excited, instead of swearing).  Scattered out around a very large dead tree before me were a LOT of bones — ribs and vertebrae, numerous leg bones, and a pelvis.  All were fairly large, and all were very heavily covered with gnaw marks, evidence that the coyotes had been there.  By the size, I think it most likely that the bones were from a deer.  I gathered up all of them I could find, tracking downhill from where the first find was (with all the rain we’d had lately, I thought it likely some more bones might have been washed downhill, and I was right; I found four more vertebrae, three more ribs, and another leg bone that way).

I wanted to keep looking, but it was overcast and already getting dark, so I laid out my own offering to the forest and said profuse thanks before heading back up the hill.  Heading uphill, I found yet another leg bone, this one far less gnawed.

I cleaned the mud and leaf litter off the bones.  I don’t know how the deer died (I was able to find a diagram of a deer skeleton here online, and was able to confirm it was a deer from the pelvis), but there’s any number of ways: disease, broken leg and starvation or freezing, poaching (I’ve found shotgun shells out there before, although the area is strictly marked No Hunting), or taken down by coyotes, perhaps.  I hope to go back out there this weekend, earlier in the day, if the weather hasn’t taken a turn for the worse, to look for more bones and maybe finish my walk (by the time I got done, it was time to turn around and go back).

The offering: the outer circle is oats, the inner circle is grapes. At top: chopped walnuts; center, bananas; lower left, home-made honey butter; lower right, maple syrup; bottom, raisins.

All the bones, cleaned up a bit (still need to get hydrogen peroxide to whiten them). Leg bones at left, ribs at center, vertebrae and pelvis at right.

The Pelvis and several vertebrae. Note the tooth marks on all pieces.

The gnaw marks on all the bones are a perfect illustration of this post’s title. Whether the deer was alive or dead when the coyotes got at it, the circle of life is in full force here — predator and prey and the way they interact. Coyotes are both predators and scavengers; they’ll eat roadkill or carrion when they find it, if they have no other food. I believe that even when I go back, I probably won’t find many smaller bones, which the coyotes probably crunched down into smaller pieces and ate entirely. The gnaw marks are quite beautiful, evidence of an almost scrimshaw nature of the intersection of these two types of creatures in the wild.

Leg bones. The largest are longer than my forearm. Note how heavy and thick they are; I think it likely that this was a big stag.

Ribs -- 13 in all, 9 "full" (i.e. only chewed a little bit at the ends), 4 partial (chewed a lot).

Vertebrae! Pretty big ones, too; largest are bigger than my fist.

Inside of the pelvis. More chew marks.

Visible gnaw marks on side of pelvis from coyotes. (Tooth marks are much too big to be from foxes or raccoons.)

Outside of pelvis.

Tooth marks on a leg bone.

Full ribs, with attachment knobs.

Three of the "partial" ribs.

The left-most is one of the partial ribs; the remaining nine are the "full" ribs.

If I get back this weekend, I intend to take pictures of the site itself; unfortunately, the batteries in my camera died before I could do so. I replaced them when I got home — obviously, or I wouldn’t have all these nice bone pictures — but it left me with no pictures of the find site itself.

When I have finished cleaning these up, I’ll have to find a fairly large box to store them in, and inter them in that reliquary with burial gifts before transferring it to my bone altar.  The spirit of deer is one I’ve often wished to work with, but never had any luck finding anything of before.

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2 Comments

  1. What an awesome find!

  2. I agree, incredible find!


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