BACKYARD BODY SNATCHERS
It had been a hot and sticky day and the night was not all that different, just darker. Bob, our black and white cat, greeted me in my study with one of those great feline stretches and yawns. Reinvigorated, he headed straight for the door and “asked” to be let outside.
I opened the door. As the cat walked out, the humid night air seeped inside. Bob suddenly stopped in his tracks. I peered out into the dark, half expecting to see another cat or some other animal like a raccoon or opossum, but there was nothing. Bob shifted into reverse and slowly backed into the house, but his stare remained fixed on the steps.
Lying on its back just outside the door with its legs splayed wide was a dead gray squirrel. Some other predator no doubt bagged the hapless rodent and left it somewhat peeled and slightly disemboweled on the top step to stew in the summer heat. Too tired to deal with the furry mess, I opted to deal with the remains the following day.
I dashed off to work the next day and only when I came home later that afternoon did I remember the dead squirrel. The pungent aroma of death hung heavy in the yard as I approached the small, fly-covered body on the step. Blow flies are among the first scavengers to arrive on animal waste and decomposing bodies.
As I bent down to inspect the corpse a panicked wave of blow flies buzzed up past my face. Their tiny wings churned the air to propel their brassy green bodies out of harm’s way. But within minutes they were back. For scavengers like blow flies, life is short and the aroma of decaying flesh promising food, mates, and egg laying sites is just too much to ignore.
I gently nudged the squirrel with the toe of my shoe to move it off the step and onto the nearby ground. In doing so I uncovered a layer of maggots that had been feeding greedily upon the squirrel’s remains. Left undisturbed these maggot hordes would convert most of the squirrel into hundreds of flies in just a few days. Other insects, spiders, and wildlife, in turn, would consume them. Anyone remember the food web?
Liberally sprinkled among the maggots were dozens of round, hister beetles. Each black, highly polished and compact beetle looked as if it were fashioned from a bit of patent leather and shaped like a large BB. Hister beetle species are drawn to decaying plant and animal matter not as scavengers, but as predators. Both adult and larval histers feed on the eggs and larvae of scavenging flies and beetles.
Darting among the edges of the feeding frenzy like hyenas were slender, sickle-jawed rove beetles. Unlike most beetles, the short wing flaps expose most of their long, supple bodies that are covered with bristly patches of grayish white and black. They, too, were on the prowl for insect prey.
Over the next several days a succession of these and other insects have reduced the squirrel to just a thin layer of fur and disarticulated bones. I am not sure what impresses me more. The fact that this process occurs with such predictability, or that such a coterie exists at all in a scrubbed, scraped, cultivated, and sprayed neighborhood. Even in the city nature somehow still manages to find a way to breakdown, recycle, and renew.
©2009, A.V. Evans