Recycled Research by James L. Bruner
I peer cautiously from behind the lacy foilage of dying cedar trees that have lost an earlier battle with the wind. Their root system desperately made several final attempts to pull enough liquid life from the earth before relinquishing to defeat in a rust-colored mass of entangled groundwork. At first light the little black demons drop from the trees and clutter about the forest floor with their heads hung low and eyes ablaze with mischief. Every morning it’s exactly the same. They come to taunt and ridicule my daily efforts which resemble a self-made prison to which I am bound while putrid decompostion continues to process every minute of every hour of every day. My breath hangs low on this early morning as I anticipate the first screams breaking the silence and realize no amount of penance can help me now. One by one the demons move closer while observing the hierarchy of their pecking order. Muttering to each other in guttural disposition, they adhere to a map of communication while death fills their nostrils and darkness falls swiftly into their eyes where I hope to never see my own reflection. In that moment, the leader, largest in stature and assumed knowledge, locks my position and the screams begin to fill the air.
Not everyone views an early morning congregation of crows the same way but all the same, it’s part of nature and how you visually perceive your sorroundings. This was one of many mornings where I attempted to watch and research the local wolf population feeding over a whitetail deer carcass. I used the word attempted earlier because that is more or less the result as the wolves chose to feast at night. The deer was a roadkill doe that I had transported back into the woods to a sensible area that provided absolute viewing from a distance of which I will not disclose. Let’s just say it was off the beaten path but on the trail of least resistance. Typically, this is where you wont find me. Understand? As a footnote in my journal reads, “It’s difficult at best to visualize the scene of a wolf pack feeding in the snow without viewing said scene firsthand. It appears to be uncontrolled chaos but confirmed research tells us differently.” Research, in most forms, will bring surprises and I’ll share a couple brief notations here with the readers.
I hear hunters talk all the time about whitetails. It’s a great topic of conversation as the whitetailed deer is widely distributed and the most sought after big game animal. Mess around a deer’s home too much and before you realize it that deer is gone. Well, that’s definately not always true. In fact deer adapt quite well which is why suburbia has problems with deer eating their flowers and gardens. I suppose that in some form of rational thinking the idea of the deer leaving the area floated around the room for a bit before being regurgitated into a void conversation. Quite possibly it was spoken in broken english – Me build house – Deer go away. Sorry pal. Not likely with the opportunistic and lazy whitetail. Yes, lazy. Like humans.
Several years ago I watched the same groups of deer using the same trail at the same time every morning. Quite honestly, I was bored of the repetition and decided to change the rules of research a little. The next day found me with a chainsaw cutting down a dead spruce tree 40 feet from the trail that the deer used. And where did I drop the tree? Right across the trail of course! The top 6 feet of the tree laid perfectly across the trail at a heigth of 14″ with no branches to suggest any major deviation from normal travel pattern. Yes, the deer would have to step over the fallen tree but it was nothing to actually break their normal stride and surely not a monumental obstruction. After a single day of letting the place rest I returned the following morning and observed.
Right on time the first small group of deer sauntered up to the tree and looked around as if they were about to be ambushed. Well now, something to jot down in my journal for a change. After a brief moment they played follow-the-leader and proceeded to walk around the tree. They showed no concern or further cause for alarm and that continued for the entire morning as every deer chose the same path. Within one week of time they had a very visible trail worn into the soft ground. A simple length of string laid along the trail showed the deer walked an extra 14′ and 6″ rather than stepping over the tree. Does that confirm or debunk the suggestion that deer are lazy? What it does confirm is that if I were bowhunting from that treestand instead of observing, and those deer were out of my range, I could have used that tree to my advantage and moved the deer in range. Of course it would be a hell of a lot easier just to move closer so don’t take that as a suggestion. It’s the difference between hunting and research. For the sake of argument let it be noted that this scenario took place in the end of October and shows their willingness to adapt rather than divert. I realize this is a minor point in case but many pivotal topics begin with a benchmark of basic observational research platforms. You “can” drive off the main road and still find, or make, another road.
Here’s an instance where I broke the cardinal rule of physical interaction with an animal. A coyote to be more precise. I’m not Grizzly Adams by any means and cannot communicate with the critters and that narrow-minded train of thought leaves the door wide open for trouble. In fact two words come to mind on that subject – Timothy Treadwell.
I had just moved into my log cabin and began to unpack when I noticed something in the yard. A coyote. Although I knew better I felt like I was the intruder here as the cabin itself had been vacant for years. I retrieved a peace offering for my visitor from one of the many boxes strewn about the cabin that had yet to be unpacked. Ah, a fresh hotdog bun. I tossed the bread into the yard and he readily accepted the offering stopping momentarily to look back over his shoulder before disappearing into the darkness. I reflected on the scene for a moment and never expected to see him again but as we know association can lead to dependancy or confrontation. After all, a coyote is a very capable and cunning predator. This opportunity could present some very good research notes and, although I knew better, I failed to listen to myself.
Two nights later as I was sitting on the patio enjoying the melodic tune from the frogs in the distant swamp the coyote appeared again. We sat staring at each other from barely more than 10 yards. His outline and features were hardly discernable with the dim light shining out from the cabin yet he appeared to be calm. I spoke in a normal voice “I’ll bet you want another treat?” He just sat there as if he understood he was in no danger and like a typical canine tilted his head slightly. I rose from the chair and he trotted off like he had an appointment to keep. I began to wonder why he was alone and not in the safety of a pack.
After an entire week I figured the bouncy little coyote had found his way to something more closely associated to a coyotes typical lifestyle. It was mid-afternoon on a weekday when I caught him peering from behind a tall patch of thistle. I retrieved several slices of bread from the cabin and threw one to the ground 10 feet or so from my feet. He cautiously made his way over, snatched the bread, and ran to the edge of the yard where he ate in safety. As not to appear so opposing I sat on the grass and lobbed another slice of bread just passed my feet. Again, he repeated the movement of retrieval but shortened the distance before stopping to eat. On the third attempt I held the bread in my hand as the coyote approached. I felt the anticipation and adrenaline rise but the coyote stopped just short and I dropped the bread to the ground. At this distance our eyes locked and for a moment my own rules of negating any interaction came pouring back to life. I believe he understood the heigthened sense of awareness in some form but like I have mentioned, I cannot communicate with the critters. I can say for sure that at this distance, I could have counted the taste buds on his tounge. In one last effort to show my trust I laid flat on my back with a piece of bread in each outstretched hand, eyes closed, and listened. It wasnt long before I heard the unmistakable sound of grass underfoot and, in a second, a piece of bread was stripped from my right hand. The coyote gingerly walked around my head to the left hand and took that bread as gently as handing it to a human. With my heart beating a mile a minute I opened my eyes and tipped my head forward to see the coyote walking away and, a now ex-wife, begins to shout in a tone I could never reproduce, “Are You Crazy?!?!” I simply smile and say nothing.
During the next couple weeks we watched the coyote come and go on his own as we became intimately familiar with his markings and characteristics. He would stop and snoop around the place but never really stayed for any length of time like he had in previous days. It was near the end of the second week when I noticed the coyote and our male cat in the yard within close proximity. The cat, who was extremely territorial, kept approaching the coyote who would just jump to the side as if he were playing. At one point the coyote walked directly up to the cat, layed flat on his stomach, and stretched the underside of his muzzle flat across the ground. It appeared to be a subserviant gesture. The cat chose to strike, lashing the coyote across it’s snout with outstretched claws. Both ran into the woods where apparently the coyote finally took his revenge. Although the cat survived it was nearly 2 weeks before it could walk any amount of distance. It was shortly after when a pack of coyotes began running at night. We had found an area just short of our yard where the pack had run-down a deer, killed it, and ate until they had their fill nearly outside of our bedroom window. My last sight of the friendly coyote was believed to be at the edge of the yard. It’s muzzle stained red from feasting on the remains of the fallen deer. Whether he was part of that pack was never confirmed but I doubt he was included. It shows how a wild animal is always wild and the danger you can put yourself in through physical interaction. Although I was personally never harmed the probability was always there and that type of research is never worth the price.