Sunday, February 07, 2010

Death and Life

Life and death are natural parts of every day all over our planet, including here at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. However, people do not treat all life and death equally. The death of an annoying mosquito flattened by the palm of our hand against our shin does not elicit the same response as the death of a fawn gasping its last breath. Nonetheless, life and death are normal functions of nature.
Dead deer at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman
Vultures are not the harbingers of death, but more like vital hazmat response teams. Death occurs and vultures detect that odor, much sooner than our poor sense of smell will allow, or they spot something that simply looks dead. Yesterday, visitors noticed vultures picking at a dead animal in the water. Reports of the prospective meal's identity ranged from a River Otter (Lutra canadensis) to a Raccoon (Procyon lotor) to a White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Those who said "deer" may move to the front of the class and put a gold star by their name on the board of positive self-esteem.

In fairness to the other observers, the deer is missing most of its hair, which gave it a whitish appearance and we do not know how much of the animal was visible prior to the pictures being taken by us after work. The image shows the back of the deer, which is facing away with its head turned to the right and a pinkish ear pointing skyward.

Vultures have bills designed to tear flesh from a carcass, but they often have trouble getting through a dead animal's hide. If there is not an opening in the carcass caused by injury or feeding by a carnivore, vultures will go after soft tissue like the eyes and anus and attempt to create a greater opening. In the case of the water-logged deer, no carnivores were available or willing to brave the cool water, so the vultures moved on to other opportunities. They will likely return once the water has had time to soften the carcass, which should coincide with humans detecting the odor. Vultures are able to eat decaying flesh due to enzymes and bacteria in their digestive systems, which helps limit diseases that might incubate in uneated carcasses. Yum.

Prothonotary Warbler at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark MusselmanThat was death, so now we will move on to life. Project PROTHO is beginning its second year and will aid in life by providing nesting cavities for Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) in areas of the swamp that have been degrading by past logging. Younger trees and forests have fewer natural cavities in which birds can nest, so the nest boxes will fill an unmet need. Students in Orangeburg Consolidated School District Three are helping to build the nest boxes out of used 1/2-gallon milk/juice cartons and master naturalists in the state are volunteering to set out and monitor the nest boxes. Below is the how-to video:

Images by Mark Musselman

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