Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Buried Bunny

Thursday, December 14, 2006
A regular early-winter chore around Indigo Hill is the traditional harvesting of the whiffle balls. They are found in every bit of tall grass where they've hidden since summer when we play whiffleball almost every night. Balls slugged into the middle of the forsythia, over the garage, or into the wildflower meadow east of our house rarely land where they can be retrieved. We can't see them and so we wait for nature to die back and reveal these orbs, like so many bleached-white Easter eggs tucked into grassy nests.

But it's not only the deep grass or foliage that keeps us from getting them, it's the other "dangers" as well: poison ivy, briars, and, of course, copperheads. All wayward whiffle balls are revealed to us each winter.

Bunny takes a dirt nap.

Last Saturday I was burning some trash and noticed the wildflower meadow was pretty mashed down by the recent rains. I walked into the center of it to retrieve a single, recently exposed whiffle ball. As I bent down to grab it I spied four more whiffle balls in various states of vegetative undress. Then I saw our favorite Frisbee, lost since an errant throw during August dinner party.

As I stooped to pick up the Frisbee I noticed pieces of what could only be a rabbit. The hind legs and lower body were protruding from under a messy pile of grass and moss. Now Chet Baker loves him his bunnies (bennehs) but we've never seen him catch one. They see him coming, running like a rocket across the yard to the edge where they graze. Once he's within 15 feet or so, the bunnies give a hop or two, Baker roars past them, and they take off in the other direction, while our loyal pup struggles against the forces of momentum and gravity to reverse his course, like the coyote chasing the roadrunner. It's entertaining.

The cache was well disguised by the predator.

No this was not the work of Baker. But it was the work of a predator. The rabbit was half eaten and this was where it was stored for another, later meal. The mud was scrapped up around the cache, where the grass and moss had been pushed into place.

Julie "Science Chimpefoose" Zickefoose came on the grisly scene. She's part of the Whipple Nature Crime Scene Investigation Unit. She noticed the lack of pawprints in the mud, eliminating coyote and fox. I hypothesized mink or weasel, both of which we've seen on the farm. "No, they'd chew up the rabbit more." The carcass was opened up cleanly, like it had been cut by a knife. Owl? Hmmm.... the grass seemed too deep for an owl, like a great horned to hunt in. And wouldn't it just fly away with the rabbit to carve it up and cache elsewhere?

Moss, grass, and weeds were scraped on top of the rabbit carcass.

Chimpefoose went to the Web and found this page with a photo documentation of a skunk killed and consumed by a great horned owl. Note how the bones are picked nearly clean but not chewed. Eureka!

So our killer was most likely a great horned owl. Back at the crime scene, we took more pictures and noticed where the mud might've been pressed down under the taloned feet of an owl. And there were the vertebrae of the poor rabbit, pulled out and plucked clean.
Are these the pad/talon marks of a great horned owl in the mud?

Reconstructing the events of the night this "murder" happened, we surmised that the GHO flew into our yard and perched on the pole that holds our martin gourds and waited for a rabbit to make a move. When it did, the owl dropped onto it and ate what it could (big rabbit) and hid the rest.

Why not our other common large owl, the barred owl? They tend to stick to the forest when hunting. This spot in the middle of our yard is a better fit for the edge-hunting GHO.

Mystery solved, but that's not the end of the story...

The next afternoon Chet came into the house carrying something in his mouth. We could tell from his guilty look that he knew he was doing something he wasn't supposed to do. And sure enough, he had a dirty, smelly, chewed up rabbit's foot in his mouth. Nice, Chet! That explains your breath.

He gave it up, but was not done with the benneh. That evening he went out for his nocturnal micturation and ran to the edge of the wildflower meadow, site of bunny brutality, and barked his head off. He would not go into the weeds. . . was the owl there finishing off the rest of the bunny? It was almost entirely gone the next morning.

Neat mystery of nature right in the backyard.
Now I have a strange urge to read Watership Down now...


On December 15, 2006 at 6:23 AM Julie Zickefoose said...

Cinnamon isn't going to approve of this post.

On December 15, 2006 at 8:59 AM Rondeau Ric said...

Good book Watership Down.

I think you're right jz, someone is going to be very upset.

On December 15, 2006 at 9:22 AM mon@rch said...

wonderful birding CSI work being done! I see you even have your own bone collector on the team!

On December 15, 2006 at 9:37 AM Anonymous said...

It's amazing how quickly those balls disappear in the tall grass. You've inspired me to look once more for some missing softballs in our yard. They don't overwinter too well in the elements.

Circleville, OH

On December 15, 2006 at 10:05 AM Anonymous said...

I love a good CSI post!

Yes, Cinnamon did greatly disapprove of this entry, but she did approve of the mention of Watership Down, so you're safe for the moment.

On December 15, 2006 at 4:36 PM Face said...

A new BLOG

CSI Whippple

On December 15, 2006 at 8:24 PM Trixie said...

Washington County Medical Examiner will be calling your house shortly.....

On December 15, 2006 at 10:44 PM Susan Gets Native said...

Cool! Raptor food!
I used to be rather bothered by the carnage taking place outside our walls, but ever since I started at RAPTOR, I see the sense of it all. Nature makes bunnies (and bugs, and mice, and rats, etc) to be eaten. That's why there are so many of them. Lots of opportunity to be eaten, and yet the prey species lives on.

Good detective work, Science Chimp.