Did you ever stop to think about what happens to the things we leave in the woods?
Story and photos by Tom Fegely
Having grown up hunting deer in Pennsylvania and with visits to more than three dozen whitetail-rich states over the years, it has become obvious that deer hunters provide other wildlife with a phenomenal amount of fresh meat, organs and other internal body parts every hunting season.
It’s from early October into December that the greatest count of gut piles can be made, each totaling about 20 percent of a deer’s live weight. Roadkill tallies in which the entire animal is made available are also highest in autumn, although cars and trucks and does and bucks share a precarious existence throughout all four seasons.
Some 30 winters ago, according to our camp logbook, I was fortunate to witness one such benefactor at work. On a northeastern Pennsylvania hillside, I watched as a big coyote visited the snowy site where I’d downed and then field-dressed a buck the day before.
I was seated in a treestand with binoculars awaiting 9 a.m. when a big male coyote, the first of its kind I’d ever seen in Pennsylvania, cautiously walked up to the day-old gut pile. Through binoculars, I watched it rip and gulp down its near-frozen breakfast, bringing to mind the millions of pounds of offal left behind by successful hunters during the season’s opening days.
He fed for about five minutes before a nearby shot broke the silence. He then turned and trotted off in the opposite direction, pausing once for a look at what was left of his hasty meal.
I should have had a camera.
Some animals earn their full-time livings as scavengers – they’re nature’s garbage men. Others are opportunists, which eat animals they did not kill. These include the opossum, raccoon, black bear, raven, crow and even the bald eagle. On Alaska’s Kodiak Island and at various places in British Columbia, deer hunters must keep their eyes peeled for grizzlies, which have learned that a gunshot is as good as a dinner bell signaling the location of a fresh meal.
A pack of coyotes or a couple of black bears will make short work of a gutpile or an entire deer. Solitary red foxes, however, will eat what they can on the scene, then cart a mouthful or bellyful of flesh back to their pups to stash in a den for later consumption. That which remains is urine-marked so it can be relocated on subsequent visits. If feasible, a satiated fox might bury its find, as do bears, to reduce the chances of a competitor finding it.
One October afternoon on Anticosti Island in Quebec, I watched a pair of black foxes (a color phase of the red fox also called silver fox) make three or four trips each past my stand over the course of an hour. On each trip westward, they’d be carrying chunks of meat, probably to a den somewhere in the deep spruce woods. Although I didn’t have time to check, I presumed the stash was tasty venison from some freshly-killed whitetail.
Brér Possum is another opportunist with a taste for carrion. In many places, the focus of its attention has become fresh roadkill, inviting certain danger and frequently making roadkills of themselves. Where I live, it’s not uncommon to see possum eyes glowing as I drive country blacktops at night, often at the places a groundhog, cottontail or squirrel met its demise.
The master of scavenging is surely the turkey vulture, whose graceful rides upon warm thermals bring a touch of beauty to this bare-headed bird. Still, its eating habits may be considered a bit gross. Studies show that the turkey vulture relies primarily on keen eyesight to locate carrion, particularly road-killed deer lying in an open field near a highway. However, for a bird, it exhibits a surprisingly acute sense of smell. As the stench of rotting flesh drifts skyward, circling vultures – or buzzards, if you will – can hone in on their next meal, inviting others of their kind via their mere presence atop a carcass.
The naked, red head is a unique adaptation to its feeding style. If it was feathered, poking it into decayed flesh time and again might otherwise cause disease if the sun’s ultraviolet rays were unable to reach and kill the bacteria. As fresh roadkills are usually too firm to tear apart, vultures prefer the softer, stench-laden meat and innards.
Crows, ravens, magpies and jays – all members of the same clan and familiar to hunters – also keep watch for carrion smorgasbords, usually announcing their finds with excited calls and inviting others of their kinds to share in the feast. The Canada jay, known also as the camp robber or gray jay, is so brazen it may appear within minutes after a kill is made to stake its claim. While hunting Anticosti Island and western Montana, I’ve had jays pecking away on one end of a buck while I was skinning the other.
Hunters will do well to keep their ears tuned to the sky when blood-trailing a deer or elk. The raucous calls of any of these excitable Corvids may reveal its location.
This article was published in the September 2006 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.