Nature Notes: Wildlife Mysteries
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By Ed Robinson
I know that many readers of this column are observant of the natural world around them, and can imagine that you sometimes wonder about signs of wildlife activity that leave parts of the story untold. It might be those unfamiliar tracks along a hiking trail that pique your interest, or a pile of feathers in the woods that tell of unseen drama leading to the bird’s demise. Perhaps you have woken in the middle of the night to scratching sounds in the bedroom wall or the attic of your house, and wondered what wildlife challenge you would have to deal with in the morning.
Because humans have poor night vision, and we stay in our comfortable homes overnight, we miss a good deal of wildlife activity that takes place under the cover of darkness. Many of our favorite wildlife neighbors are active at night, and some spend most of their lives out of our sight. If we are honest with each other, we would probably admit that the sounds of nighttime activities can be spooky when we cannot see the source of those sounds. All those scary childhood stories, and resulting nightmares, come flooding back to our minds when we are alone in the dark.
As a youth, I ran a trap line during the autumn and winter months to earn pocket money. The law required me to check my traps every day, so on school days I had to rise early in darkness and walk alone the 2 – 3 miles of my route through the woods and fields behind my home. Generally I enjoyed the solitude and the fresh scents of nature on these walks. But when an unseen creature reacted to my presence by rushing through the understory, it could be unsettling. The owls were the worst – they always managed to make the hair on my neck stand on end with their haunting cries from shadowy trees.
Sometimes we encounter wildlife mysteries where we just cannot find an explanation, despite our best attempts as detectives. I’ll share one that caused me to scratch my head for nearly 2 years. At our cabin in central NY, we have a lovely pond just a few feet away from the deck. Whenever I stay there, I love to walk out on the deck in the morning to listen to the sounds around me, and to take in the smells and sights of a new day in the forest. During a summer visit in 2011, I stepped out on the deck on a lovely morning. I noticed some cattail stalks were floating in the pond, and knew they had not been there the previous day when I went swimming. It seemed odd, but I had work to do and simply got on with the day.
The next morning, I was surprised to see more cattail stalks floating in the water, and walked around to check the bank. I could see where the cattails had been pulled up from their roots, but the roots were undisturbed. This seemed odd, because cattail roots are popular with muskrats, and I could not see why they would cut the stalks off but leave the roots. I was also dreading the arrival of muskrats in the pond because their digging of bank dens and tunnels can cause problems with pond berms. I walked slowly around the entire pond and could find no evidence of muskrats, beavers or anything else out of the norm.
Upon my return to the cabin in October, I again found cattail stalks on the surface of the pond on 3 different days. Again, I found no explanation for this. I discussed it with some local friends and a wildlife expert from the local state forestry office. No one could help me solve the problem.
The next year found me at the cabin in early July. You guessed it – more cattail stalks floating on the pond. Try as I might, and despite more research, I could find no reason for the removal of cattails from the pond. It even occurred to me that one of my local pals might be playing tricks on me, but no one was willing to fess up.
In the middle of October of 2012, I was enjoying fine Indian summer weather at the cabin while doing some wood cutting for a friend. Waking one morning at first light, I walked to the loft window and pulled back the curtains. Looking out at the pond, I was staring at the culprit!
There on the bank of the pond stood a large whitetail doe. She had her front legs well down the bank in the water, and her head was submerged. In a couple seconds, she pulled her head up and with it came a mouthful of cattails! To my surprise, she then proceeded to chew on the newly exposed white stalks. With her eyes closed, and completely unaware of her audience, the deer had a look on her face much like the one I get when downing a piece of fresh, warm blueberry pie – bliss! The deer looked so happy that I decided not to disturb her, nor did I chase her away before she could eat any more cattails. There were plenty to go around, and she clearly was careful about not eating them all at once.
Once I knew the story, I asked around and no one else had even seen or heard of a deer eating cattails. It seemed this doe had simply stumbled upon a new delicacy and had a private inventory to feed her passion. The depredations stopped after that October visit, and I can only assume the doe was harvested by some hunter, who might have noticed the fresh taste of his cattail flavored venison. The doe must have kept her secret to herself because no other cattail plundering has occurred in the years since. I almost miss her, and the wildlife mystery she played upon me! If any readers care to share your own wildlife mystery, I’d be happy to hear your stories (firstname.lastname@example.org).