Saturday, August 22, 2009

Vultures, smelly trash and lessons learned

The coolest thing happened this afternoon: A vulture landed on the wall at the back of our property! This is my amazingly bad photo of the event. Sorry, there was a lemon tree in the way.

Why am I so excited about this? The answer will either surprise you or leave you absolutely convinced - if you weren't already - that I am insane. Read more...
The vulture's landing today grew out of two seemingly unrelated story lines in my life.

The first is about garbage. Boyfriend and I do a fair amount of hunting and fishing, and for the animals that we dress at home - birds, rabbits and smaller fish - we end up throwing the guts in the trash can.

This can smell really bad. Like the time when Boyfriend and his dad and brother went fishing two days in a row, right after the garbage had been picked up for the week. Holy shit, that smelled like festering zombies.

But the worst ever was a few years ago when Boyfriend went rabbit hunting in the summer and the garbage workers promptly went on a three-week strike. Yowza.

At the back of my mind all these years has been this nagging worry about the neighbors with the bedroom windows near where we keep our trash cans. There must be a better way...

So, that's the backdrop. Fast forward to this month, when I was working on a story for the National Wild Turkey Federation magazine, Turkey Country, about California's lead ammunition ban.

If you haven't heard about the ban, then you must not be reading Phillip's Hog Blog - he writes about it a lot. He's got great stuff over there.

Short version, though, is this: The California condor is an endangered species - there are only a few hundred left. One of the condor's big problems is lead poisoning; their bodies just can't deal with lead at all.

A lot of biologists believe a major source of lead in condors' diet is spent ammunition that they consume while feasting on gut piles left by hunters, or shot animals that hunters haven't been able to recover. So California banned most lead ammunition in the condor zone.

I have deliberately skipped over the politics here, because the politics are not relevant to this story. What is relevant is the discussions I had when I was reporting on the story about all the scavengers that really depend on (or at least appreciate) hunters leaving gut piles for them.

One of the guys I interviewed - Jim Petterson, a wildlife biologist for Pinnacles National Monument - told me a story about coming across a shot dead deer (not recovered by the hunter) on the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona. "There were three condors, a golden eagle, a bald eagle, ten turkey vultures and ten ravens all feeding on it, or trying to feed on it, or waiting to feed on it," he said.

Wow. That was food for a lot of critters that scavenge for a living!

Later, I was reviewing a report on the condor by the American Ornithologists Union, and it said how vital it is for hunters to keep hunting in the condor zone, because condors depend on hunters for food (see conclusion 2, p. 79).

So I started thinking.

I don't live in the condor zone, but we do have scavengers in my little bubba-ish suburb of Sacramento. Vultures circle overhead all the time.

When I throw guts in the trash - usually on weekends, and trash pick-up day is Thursday - the only animals I help are the flies. You don't even want to know about the seething masses of maggots in that trash can after a hunt.

But if I leave gutpiles where scavengers can get to them, I'm helping other critters, and pretty much eliminating any chance of smell, because the stuff would get picked up so fast it wouldn't have time to stink.

So, for the past couple weekends that I've gone rabbit hunting, I've tossed the guts in the field behind our house - a field conveniently left vacant by speculators who were going to build houses there but timed construction right at the start of the real estate crash.

I have never smelled a thing. That stuff gets picked off fast. (And in case anyone's worried that I'm poisoning the vultures with lead shot, I killed those rabbits with steel shot.)

But I've never seen the beneficiaries of the gutpiles. Until today. I was at the back of the house when Boyfriend hollered, "Hey, there's a vulture landing in our yard!"

I grabbed the camera and shot through the sliding glass door:

I felt bad. I didn't go rabbit hunting today - I'm giving my spot a rest - so I had nothing for him.

But I was happy, because I knew he was here because this was where the good stuff has been. In five years, we've NEVER seen a vulture land in our vicinity.

Hey, some people use bird feeders to attract wildlife on the wing. We use rabbit guts.

I'm not sure what we'll do when the market rebounds and houses get built in that field. I'm guessing the new neighbors wouldn't appreciate the whole gut pile scene.

But for now, we've got a win-win situation: I'm happy. The vultures are happy. The neighbors should be happy. And the flies - well, screw them anyway. They can lay their eggs somewhere else.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


Phillip said...

Not even sure how to respond to this one! When the NorCal Cazadora archives are saved in some big national database, this one will go down as a Holly Classic. It has all the elements that you bring to writing about a sport that's been practically stagnating in same-ol-same-ol'. Feeding the vultures in the neighborhood empty lot... I love it!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Thank you for refraining from calling me batshit crazy! (At least publicly.)

TommyTriTip said...

Love it!!!!!!

Shewee woman said...

Always enjoy your stories and so glad you are not helping the fly population anymore. Since I live in suburbia here in PA I have learned to bag the guts and carcass and throw it in the freezer till trash day. It makes for a much cleaner trash presentation. Of course we don't have condors here but we did I might be throwing the guts into a vacant lot too!

Albert A Rasch said...

I can see a new Chronicles project coming together: The California Vulture Feeder. Made with recycled materials and splash of karma.


The Hunter's Wife said...

I'm guessing the more you leave out the more vultures you are sure to attract. They won't eat cats right?

NorCal Cazadora said...

Shewee woman: We've done the freezer thing sometimes too, but sometimes our freezers are just so full that we don't have room for guts. But it is a good option.

Albert: Love it! Let's start talking design. I'm thinking a catapult, so I don't have to walk out through all the thorns and weeds to put the guts out.

Hunter's Wife: I hope not. Boyfriend did grumble at me yesterday about vultures sometimes going after live things, which I've never heard of, but he swears he has. Harlequin's a prettty tough cat. But when she sleeps, she kinda does look dead...

Phillip said...

The other note about vultures you may want to know is that they have a nasty habit of regurgitating their stomach contents when frightened... which is one reason so many people have issue with vultures roosting in the trees around their homes. Sometimes it takes little more than the slam of a car door to trigger a lovely rain of partially digested carrion. Just a thought, as you encourage these guys into your neighborhood.

Back in NC, by the way, we disposed of guts and scrap by feeding it to the gators in the Cape Fear River. I've since learned that this is supposed to be a no-no, as dumping all that protein and nutrient rich stuff into the river is hard on the ecosystem... but the gators always seemed pretty happy.

Blessed said...

regurgitated gut piles... eww....

Anyway - I think it's a great way to eliminate the over abundance of flies and stink caused by throwing that stuff in the garbage can!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Phillip: One of many reasons we're throwing the guts on the other side of our fence. Even if they hang out on the fence, you've seen that part of our yard - a little vulture barf won't even be noticed.

Blessed: Hell, even regurgitated filet mignon would be disgusting!

Glad you like my solution, though. Perhaps I should market this to hunters - I could sell a vulture starter kit for complete elination of all hunting waste!

native said...

Excellent Holly!
Just another example of the ever eco-conscious hunters thought process.

Love it!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Thanks, Native!

It makes me feel better to share the stuff I don't plan to eat anyway :-).

Josh said...

I think you could team up with Audubon to offer some really large, very smelly bird feeders. Perhaps the ones you can stick on your window?

Phillip, about the gutpiles in the river for the alligators, I wouldn't worry about it. The nutrients you are putting into the water probably more effectively mimic a time when there were that many animals on the continent. It's also nutrients that already exist within the system, versus the billions of tons of chemical fertilizer created from petroleum.

SimplyOutdoors said...

First off, I thought my wife was the only one who used the phrase "bat shit crazy". Apparently not, though, and I love it.

And second this post is why I read your blog. It is so unique and yet so great at the same time.

Keep feeding them vultures.

Live to Hunt.... said...

Well Holly, I must be batshit crazy too. I will often toss my carcasses out on our property for the vultures to pick through. I got the idea a year ago when I finally caught up to a raccoon that was repeatedly snacking on our chickens, and I took him out. I tossed him up on the hill at the back of our property and it wasn't an hour before three vultures were tugging and pulling at his pesky little body. Oh course I live out in he country and not in suburbia, so that does make a difference.

A couple days later I went up on the hill and was astonished to see nothing but a skull, a few clean bones and four little feet scattered about. Between the vultures and the ground-dwelling critters, that raccoon was gone. I actually felt kind of satisfied that I gave back to the earth in that sort of way. Makes things feel full circle. Oh, and knowing that my poor little chickens would no longer get picked off at night wasn't a bad thing either. In fact I think I saw the surviving chickens up on the hill a day after I killed the raccoon and they were spitting on his body and kicking dirt in his face. :)

Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is, 'I get it'. Since then I've tossed fish and duck and assorted other scraps on the hill and fed the vultures. No more awful smelling garbage can, and a satisfaction that next years' vultures will have a little more fat on their bones.

NorCal Cazadora said...

It is very satisfying!

And you remind me of something else that has occurred to me: Ever notice how long it takes roadkill to go away?

Once a raccoon got hit by a car on the busy arterial I walk to go to my gym every day (well, I wish every day). I watched for a good month as that thing turned into bones and tufts of fur.

I often think about the unfortunate waste of life wrought by cars, but I've just realized there's a double cost: Because roadsides are such dangerous places to scavenge, it's mostly insects that get to take advantage of those meals.

Anyway, I'm glad to know I have company!

hutchinson said...

re: Roadkill M.O. -- for anyone who's not squeamish

Whenever I see roadkill that can still be eaten by other animals, and that can be moved without danger to myself or others, I try to get it into the shrubbery or grass, and away from the road where carrion eaters can safely consume it. Secondary roadkill is a huge and tragic problem. I'm sure everyone has seen the vulture or other scavenger dead or close to getting killed by virtue of eating what's in the road. Of course, because of what I do, I always carry gloves, tools and such. I wouldn't recommend moving carcasses without some consideration for sanitation and safety. But when possible, it does help save additional wild animal lives to get the dead animals off the road.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Of course, I would be afraid of becoming tertiary roadkill, but it's cool to know you do that.

I wonder how many animals are hit by cars every year and just left on the side of the road?

Chas S. Clifton said...

I agree with about moving carcasses off the road and keep a GI entrenching tool unfolded and ready in the back seat foot well for just purpose, traffic permitting.

Your story reminds me of one about a Project Feeder Watch participant in Texas whose horse died. She had it dragged to a far corner of the pasture so that she could record the vultures on her PFW count sheet.

hutchinson said...

I've often joked with my friends that I wouldn't mind being a gut pile after I'm gone. (Well -- they think I'm joking.) If there weren't so many blasted humans fit to carry disease as corpses, it might be a viable idea. ;) Point is, I'd rather be recycled. Maybe someone can surreptitiously and illegally toss me at sea.

Holly, my understanding of kill figures are this -- these are estimates: 400 million animals killed by cars annually in the USA. 200 million animals killed by hunters annually. That doesn't count the injured and not retrieved. There are some estimates that say for every animal wounded in bow hunting or duck hunting, as examples, there's an injured animal. So the hunting figures are undoubtedly higher than official. I'm sure that's true with roadkill numbers, too. How many injured animals hit by cars slink off into the scrub, never to be found? I'm assuming it's quite a few, given animals' behavior in the face of injury.

In any event, roadkill ranks up there with hunting for numbers of wild animals killed. It's devastating and short-sighted that road builders didn't consider migratory routes and such when paving this whole country. (Many countries in Europe are much better in that regard, not to mention areas like Banff in Canada.)

I dread the work I do when I have to be on country roads. Even though I'm exceptionally careful -- and have often stopped to rescue animals others have hit and callously left behind.

For anyone reading this, there are a few general rules about driving where wildlife reside that can help:

Don't drive at dawn or sunset if you can help it. Scan the road constantly, left to right, especially looking for unusual movement, shapes. Drive the speed limit so you can better stop (or lower than speed limit on rural roads, if no one's behind you). NEVER speed past an animal that just crossed the road. Always stop or slow to a crawl when you see one animal, because there are often more behind. Knowing the animal's natural behavior can help you figure out what they're going to do when they're in the road. Where there's one deer, there are usually more. Same with raccoons, for instance. And, if a raccoon is killed on the road, its family members will often stay with it, leading them to get killed, too. It breaks my heart. Most animals will keep going in the direction they're going, don't expect them to turn back away from the car. Know which animals are unpredictable in their movements, like squirrels. And, this one really gets me -- don't expect a flock of pigeons or other birds to fly up because you're coming! I don't know how people got that idiotic idea.

NorCal Cazadora said...

That's funny - I tell Boyfriend that if I die before him, I want him to clean and bleach my skull and put it on the mantel. We're pretty sure that wouldn't be legal. But it's my damn body! (Of course, Boyfriend is not completely sold on this. Might make it hard to pick up on new chicks in the nursing home, having the ex's skull staring at him all the time.)

Interesting about the roadkill numbers. Every time I go work my ass off hunting and see more dead animals on the side of the road than in my bag, I'm troubled by the waste of life. This may seem like a slim distinction, but at least I kill for a reason; I don't accidentally hunt.

I think the kill-to-cripple ratio for ducks sounds high. I know exactly how many ducks I lose each year - I keep track. The one wild card is if a duck doesn't look injured, but just drops dead a mile past me. I got a goose in 07-08 because it happened to die over my pond, probably far from whoever shot it. I think that would be extremely hard to track reliably, though.

carol said...

I keep trash bags in the trunk of all of our cars and I pick up roadkill and bring it down into our field for the turkey vultures, I have a sliding glass door in my bedroom with a view. Fabulous birds. I hate to see the waste of an animal killed by a car, feeding vultures puts it to good use. I am sure other drivers wonder what a 58 yr woman is doing bagging roadkill, lol.