And murder and a murder

a tale of hunters and scavengers

Tracking bipeds

This winter’s tracking has been quite exceptional. Excited about the early snow pack back in November, I posted a series on various gait patterns. Those posts focused primarily on our quadruped friends, but when I was out at Macrae Farm Park in Colchester on Tuesday, I was struck at the density of tracks from some of our volant bipeds. Looking out across the frozen farm fields and floodplain forest, I was able to count somewhere between 250 and 300 crows, though there were certainly more than that making a ruckus in the distance.

A Murder of Crows

It’s a rare event to catch a plant in the act of making a mistake. But when we do, what a curious delight. It is perhaps why we ascribe such good fortune to finding four-leaf clovers. The 4 “leaves” are actually the leaflets that together make up a compound leaf. Lots of plants have variability in the number of leaflets on a leaf. The first leaves boxelder produces in the spring tend to have 3-5 leaflets, while late season leaves have 5-7 leaflets. By the end of summer, a boxelder is a pretty even mix of leaves with 3, 5, and 7 leaflets, and I suppose a 33% chance is a pretty good reason not to consider finding a 7-leaflet boxelder good luck. But four-leaf clovers are the result of a genetic mutation and are much less common than a boxelder leaf with 7 leaflets. Your chances of finding a four-leaf clover are roughly 1 in 10,000, which seems about right for a good luck charm.

Landing Trails

I watched cliques of crows as they mostly ambled through the snow, leaving a trail much like that of a walking cat (with a direct register). They dragged their toes plenty as they went, leaving somewhat sloppy and meandering trails. Because they move in groups, they’re constantly harassing each other and walking trails are often interrupted by bursts of movement where the crow flaps its wings and lifts off the ground briefly. As my dog, Boots, gleefully romped through the snowy field he alternated fluidly between a walk, lope, and bound. Baseline gaits seem to only apply to the more even-keeled (dour?) animals.

As crows come into land on the snow they often etched gracefully feathered sweeps across the white surface. Occasionally their hopping would leave slight marks in the snow as well. Snow over the ice obscured the slippery surface and their were plenty of trails that started with less than graceful slides. A few of this skittering landings were saved by a last minute splay of the tail feathers.

Landing Trails

Finding Patterns

Macrae Farm Park is a wetland complex made up of old channels of the Winooski River that have been reworked and blocked up into oxbow lakes. While much of the river is still open water, these back channels and small tributaries have all frozen over. One of the patterns I kept see was long straight trails of crow tracks leading out to downed trees and half-submerged stumps (like the one below). It appeared that the darker surfaces of the bark had heated up in direct sunlight, melted the adjacent ice, and kept small pockets of liquid water exposed. For animals in winter, much like Coleridge’s sailor, there’s water water everywhere and not a drop to drink, and it appeared that the crows were seeking out these oases to drink.

A Murder of Deer

Macrae Farm Park is a weird place. Or at least it’s adjacent to a very weird place. Every fall when hiking in the sandy forests between the Winooski Valley Park District’s natural area and Colchester HS, it seems like I find deer carcasses. A lot of deer carcasses. I’ve found them hanging from trees, as a pile of fur in a goldenrod meadow, and now this year in a somewhat disturbing pile of 13 rib cages.

When I first arrived to the natural area, I noticed a writhing black swarm of crows on the edge of the wetland area. As I made way towards the crows they erupted into the sky in a riot of squawks. My son, Cedar, was fussing about our sled so I assumed he had spooked the scavengers from their quarry. Not but a moment later, a red-tailed came zipping by on the tail of the crows.

As much as my moral hackles may have pricked up looking at the exposed mausoleum, the crows seemed rather indifferent to the ethical flash point they were feasting on. As we tracked the crows back into the natural area, I couldn’t shake that question of why this should bother me so much. I didn’t know anything of the hunter’s (or hunters’) motives, of how the deer had been processed after they’d been killed. This seemed beyond subsistence, but maybe the deer are pests to the farmer. Maybe not. It was all speculation, but the impulsive reaction was clear.

There was something undeniably visceral and evocative about the scene. With my back to the red stained snow, we made our way through the pasture towards the forest edge of the Winooski River. Looking at the open expansive of well-shorn herbaceous plants, I could see the farm too as a carcass, the remains of a once free and wild forest. The forest had at some distant time tangled its way up against the sandy shores of the Winooski before it was hacked and beaten back. What was so different between the ax and the gun? I could conjure this analogy, but I couldn’t feel it so viscerally in the same way.

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