Thoughts on the Food Chain

Preparing for the Spring Wildflower Foray, I did a pre-hike of the Wildflower Trail here at T.C. Steele State Historic Site. So far this year the trail hasn’t really lived up to its name. Spring has sprung cold and wet. I wasn’t finding many blooms — yet I wasn’t disappointed. As with most hikes, I came upon something unexpected, and that made up for the lack of wildflowers.

Down in a ravine, where the trail runs alongside an intermittant stream, a small animal skull was laying in the middle of the path. Bending down for a closer look, I could see that it had very recently been someone’s dinner (or breakfast). The question was, who-who-who-whos?

The skull was fresh, picked nearly clean with traces of blood still visible. That was all though — no other body parts around. Then I noticed several large white patches on the ground surrounding it. I knew these were some kind of bird droppings, so that narrowed my list of suspects. The second puzzle was the identity of the victim. My first thought was an opossum, but inspecting the teeth, I found they weren’t pointed. The two center teeth curved down and were blunt on the ends — typical of a rodent.

I stood awhile trying to imagine the scene that had taken place only hours earlier. Perhaps an owl had ‘dined’ on a chipmunk then dropped the leftovers from a branch overhead … bad manners. The skull was too large for a chipmunk though. I’ve noticed lots of squirrels this year, maybe there’s one less now. Really, all I could say for certain was, “Bird killed rodent,” but a short while later I heard another possible explanation.

I was telling a co-worker what I’d seen and was overheard by a visitor out birding. He asked what I’d found and I offered my suspicions, that an owl had killed and eaten a squirrel. He thought a squirrel was pretty big prey for an owl (unless it was a Great Horned owl), plus there was no real evidence that the diner was also the killer.

Many birds, like crows, belong to the Clean Plate Club and will finish up what some other critter has already killed and left behind. Hmmm … that could explain why only the skull was there. I was impressed by his reasoning, but frustrated, since he had just reopened the case.

Sometimes trying to figure out a puzzle is as satisfying as finding the solution. I hoped that the skull would still be there the next day for the hike I was leading. Maybe someone in the group would have yet another explanation. Still wondering about it, I went in search of lunch. Maybe I’d just have a salad.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.