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Nature

Good Natured in St. Charles: Ecology of survival proves irresistible visual

When a deer goes down, its legacy lives on in the many species it nourishes. Careful observance lends insight into the ecology of  the area.
When a deer goes down, its legacy lives on in the many species it nourishes. Careful observance lends insight into the ecology of  the area.

We all have dreams, don’t we?

I know I have several, including writing a book, hosting a talk show and making a perfect pie crust. But none of those are relevant right now.

Nope. Today’s dream involves dead stuff. And the best part is, it’s a dream come true.

This particular fantasy dates back to Memorial Day weekend 2008, and a visit to the Ledge View Nature Center in Chilton, Wisconsin. As nature centers go, Ledge View is a classic. Lots of knotty pine and taxidermy mounts interspersed with live animal displays and interpretive panels about ecology. But the thing that caught my eye that day, and has stayed with me ever since, was an exhibit enticingly titled “Carcass Cam.”

Someone at Ledge View (and I sure wish I knew who, because I’d like to congratulate them on their brilliance) got the idea to get a roadkill deer from the highway department and tuck it somewhere out of the way on the nature center’s grounds. Next, they mounted a motion-activated trail camera, pointed it at the deer, and waited for the fun to begin.

For wildlife in winter, finding a deer carcass is like winning the lottery. There it is, an all-you-can-eat buffet, free for the taking and open 24/7. Best of all for animals used to hunting prey, this feast doesn’t fight back.

As you might imagine, competition for such a rich resource is keen. But, as the Carcass Cam revealed, consumption of the bounty took place at a seemingly leisurely and, dare I say, civilized sort of pace.

Rather than frothy-mouthed battles between rival species, the photos depicted singular encounters of many animals casually eating their fill. A crow here, a red-tailed hawk there – opossum, mink, gray fox and, if memory serves, a chickadee too.

But what really made an impression on me was the impact this exhibit created, simply by providing a glimpse into what wildlife does naturally. It was the animals – the live ones and the dead one – that told a compelling story, with no words needed.

Ever since then I’ve kept my eye out for recently deceased deer, but with mixed results. The St. Charles big bucks that locked antlers and perished in 2014 provided lots of column fodder, and a display in the Hickory Knolls lobby, but I didn’t get a camera out quickly enough to see what became of the rest of their considerable bulk.

I’ve seen carcasses along roads, but couldn’t lift them by myself. Plus, even though I know the drill for reporting roadkill deer, and I’ve got a salvage permit, I’d still have to deal with the social stigma one feels when loading a big dead thing into the back of one’s Subaru.

In 2016, I was told about some deer remains near the structure we call the Monkey House in the Hickory Knolls Natural Area. But by the time I got out there, they were pretty well worked over. In fact, even a human scavenger had come by and sawed off the antlers.

But now, in 2019, it looks as though my carcass-seeking fortune has begun to change.

The first indication came a couple of weeks ago in the form of an email from a friend, Greg. A regular visitor to the HKNA, Greg had been out walking with his son and dog, when they came across an interesting sight – one he noted, “was a good lesson in biology for my fifth-grader.” He attached a photo of their find; it was exactly what I’d been hoping for.

I called my friend and carcass co-conspirator, Valerie, who manages Creek Bend Nature Center, also in St. Charles. As we neared the site, a red-tailed hawk called excitedly from above. Then, just as we approached the scene, a dark form moved to our right. Could it be? It was! A bald eagle. It took off and flew over the field to the south. A second red-tail, which had been waiting in a nearby tree, took off, no doubt insulted we took its place in line.

What we found, I kid you not, looked like the aftermath of a bacchanalian affair. Amid the mud, only a few bits of deer remained – a scapula, a foot, some fur. The snow was flattened for a good distance around the site and a trail, also quite well-trodden, led off to the west.

Judging by the tracks left behind, the party had included coyotes, foxes, crows and, interestingly enough, other deer. I’m sure there were other species too, but the traffic had been so heavy that signs were hard to isolate.

In the 48 hours since Greg had taken the photo, virtually every last ounce of nutrient-laden matter had been put to good use. Although we were too late to affix a camera, Valerie and I agreed, our hour with the deer provided an awe-inspiring opportunity to hone our tracking as well as other naturalist skills.

Little did we know our good luck was just beginning.

Next week: Carcass Cam makes its debut.

Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org. Feedback on this column can be sent to editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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