May 10, 2017

Stories to Tell – Guess Who Came to Dinner?

By Eric D'Aleo, Naturalist

We’ve all experienced it. A fresh set of tracks in the snow. The first question you ask yourself is… Whose track is this? This leads to a number of other questions. Where did it come from? Where was it going? What happened here? These questions often remain unanswered unless we can track the animal, we have a camera in the location, and we’re lucky. This is one such occasion with an amazing answer.

It was a cold, late winter morning and a light snow was falling as I plodded through the woods. Occasionally my feet broke through the snow’s crust and I’d sink in up to my calves. “Not a day to skip wearing snowshoes,” I chided myself, but I was more than halfway to my destination. I was eager to check the final trail camera of the day and see what it had recorded over the past month.

I hiked over the last rise and saw the log where I had secured a chicken carcass in February. The location was 15 feet from the camera. I was surprised to find there was no sign of the chicken. It was completely gone. “What took it?” I wondered. I walked over and looked around. No visible signs of feathers or bones, although they might have been covered by the recent snow. The only clues were obscured footprints and marks in the snow I could not identify. It was obvious there had been recent activity but it seemed that the camera might be the only witness. The snow continued to fall as I changed the camera card and headed back to my office to upload the information to the computer.

Once at my desk, the story of the missing chicken and the disturbance in the snow played itself out on my computer screen. The first animals to investigate the chicken carcass were a pair of raccoons. They arrived at dawn two days after I had put the bird out. They sniffed and pawed at the feathers before one took some bites and claimed the chicken as its own. It stood on the frozen body keeping the other raccoon at a distance. This lasted for 30 minutes until they left, perhaps because the morning sun was too bright.

Twelve hours later the two raccoons returned. Again only one animal fed; apparently the larger one was dominant. The second raccoon circled and wandered just out of reach looking for an opportunity to find something to eat. This behavior lasted for an hour before they left. I found this surprising since the time stamp on the last image of the raccoons read 7:20 p.m. They should have had plenty of time for them to continue feeding. The next image held the answer. A coyote came into view 50 minutes later.

The coyote was interested in the chicken but hesitated because of the infrared flash from the trail camera. It paced back and forth and circled the area maintaining a distance of 10 to 25 feet from the bird but never came closer. Then the coyote suddenly left. I stopped advancing the images. This seemed strange. Why didn’t the coyote feed? It seemed rather odd but I had read that coyotes are cautious when exposed to a new or unfamiliar food situation. But what animal was responsible for the missing chicken?

The next images answered my question. Thirty minutes after the first coyote left a second coyote entered the area. This animal was much larger and more confident. It walked directly to the chicken and assessed the situation. In less than two minutes, it determined the camera was no threat, sniffed the chicken, and set to work. It made quick progress severing the chicken from the anchors holding it to the log. Forty five minutes after it arrived, the coyote carried its frozen prize off into the night. I was amazed at how quickly the coyote removed the bird. I was excited to have an answer. But as I looked at the image I realized I had only a partial answer. I now knew what had taken the chicken, but I had no idea what animal left all the tracks and marks in the snow when I checked on the camera. All the images up until this point occurred on ice and a small patch of snow under the logs. When I removed the camera card in the morning, the entire area was blanketed with snow except for the slowly filling tracks. I was so immersed in what was happening I forgot to consider the surroundings. I thought I had an answer to my original questions, but now I realized I had only half the story. So I continued looking through the images.

An hour after the large coyote left with the chicken, a smaller coyote cautiously approached and circled the site from a distance of 30 feet or more. I assumed that it was the first coyote as it seemed to be the same size and exhibited the same behavior as before. It continued in this manner for five minutes and then left. It returned an hour later but only for a minute before it left again.

Four hours later, at 6 am a barred owl landed among the feathery remains. It pecked at the ground for a moment or two and then departed into the early morning darkness. The entire visit took a little more than one minute.

It was now three days after the chicken was initially placed, according to the time stamp on the progression of images, but even though the bird was gone, the site continued to be visited over the next 18 days. Several coyotes, two raccoons, and a gray fox all looked to see if there were any remains worth eating, but all left shortly after arriving.

I paused realizing I still did not have an answer to my second question. How were the markings left in the snow? As I continued looking at the images I noticed snow had covered the ice three days prior. Then the day before I arrived to switch the camera cards the puzzle was solved. Early in the morning a coyote visited the site. It seemed nervous by the infrared flash of the camera but seemed intent on approaching the location where the chicken had been. The ground was covered by several new inches of snow and there were no obvious signs to draw the animal in. Yet the coyote continued to warily approach. I thought that this must be the same coyote that had showed up the first night. It spent 12 minutes trying to overcome its anxiety. The coyote paced back and forth, dug at the snow behind one of the logs, bounded to one side, went back to dig some more, bounded away again, dug a third time, backed away, bit a low hanging branch in displaced frustration, and dug again until it finally came up with a small scrap of food. It took a few steps away, fed, and went back to anxiously digging and backing away for several minutes longer before it eventually left.

I looked at the final camera image of me as I stood at the site, looked at the marks in the snow and wondered what had happened here over the past month. I had to smile at the image of myself as I sat at the computers. I had no idea then of what story the camera would reveal to me that day.

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