Where Has All the Carrion Gone?

20 December 2006

It’s rather easy to overlook the dead, they don’t move much and they hardly have anything to say. Nevertheless, it’s an apparent truism that there are not enough bird carcasses lying around, compared to the shitstorms of flocking pigeons, starlings, spugs and whatever other avian excretory plagues defile our coveted personal transport systems. AÖrstan recently parsed this question over at Snail’s Tales.

One explanation for the dearth of dead bird carcasses rests upon the ability of necrophages to quickly process latent biomass into food. There is undoubtedly much truth to this, and I loath to think of wading through a world without scavangers and decomposers.

The Snail’s Tales post led me to A Snail’s Eye View of dipteran remediation complete with some beautiful fly graphics of calliphorids that “appear from nowhere” (spontaneous generation!) and the aptly named sarcophagids like those fornicating on the shovel handle above.

I argue that this is only part of the story.

Anyone who hikes with dogs is aware that there is no shortage of carrion in various states of rereification out there:

Though we were able to keep Clyde from downing the above wriggling protein-fest, he soon arrived with another partially decomposed rodent proudly clenched in his jaws. He also rustled up some quasi-disarticulated Mule Deer limbs on the same hike. I probably ought to chalk up my queasy GI sentiments about eating carrion not to any moral superiority on my part, but to Clyde’s superior constitution1.

Early on, it would seem that Homo was an opportunist par excellence, surely not shying away from a free meal. Yet somewhere along the way tools or culture or behavior weakened our stomach and we lost the taste for a nicely ripened marmot carcass with good maggot marbelling.

How exactly our digestive weakness, or disgust, got cross-mapped across onto our regard for various “non-normative” sexual behaviors will be the territory for future enlightened generations of neuro-historians2, and perhaps also the subject of a few well earned chuckles, though I’m betting it had something to do with death and maybe Catholics.

Anyway, anyone with open eyes is likely to observe a number of dead birds across their daily transects whether in city or country3. On a recent trip down I-5 I counted no fewer than six dead owls, mostly Tyto alba probably. Carel accounts 27 dead Longears along a Nevada highway and I wonder how many I missed. There are many dead raptors to be seen along our “rights-of-way” drawn in no doubt by the car-killed carrion buffet and perhaps by the unintentional baiting of rodents et al. by cast off tasty morsels.

Birds fly, make noise, aggregate in large numbers…they’re remarkably conspicuous animals. It’s notable that there are a lot more birders out there than mousers or lizarders or spiderers. But when they die they’re a bit more crytpic.

I imagine that the main source for the discrepancy is our general disregard for the dead animals we step over and around everyday without a second thought. A flattened Rock Dove is much easier to overlook than one flapping about. We generally don’t go hunting for the thousands of half-rotten starlings littering our alleys and gutters and chimneys so we should be wary of assuming their absence.

1– Of course, Clyde is no stranger to pleasures of the hunt. Moments after I took the top photo, and seconds after frolicking joyfully in the surf,

Clyde stalked and killed the first of two vertebrates he’s dispatched in the eight months since we’ve had him. The victim was a shorebird probably much akin to the mummmy found in the sand. I don’t think it was a Snowy Plover. Still, I feel terrible about it.

2 – Note the optimism.

3 – Please, I spelled it properly, check again.

2 Responses to “Where Has All the Carrion Gone?”

  1. Jessica Says:

    I almost stepped on a dead squirrell in Kentucky. Luckily we mangaged to keep Clyde from eating jellyfish.

  2. […] revisit to the beach which inspired the original, barely readable, post (Where Has All the Carrion Gone?) proved again that the Lost Coast, south of Pt. Mendocino CA is a great place to die. Or at least a […]

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