Death And Maiming

On May 22, 2008, in Uncategorized, by Meghan

Uinta ground squirrels, affectionately known as “whistle pigs” for their unceasing whistle-like vocalizations, are massively abundant here. Their colonies are laced through the soil of my yard, and every other neighborhood yard as well. They hibernate underground all winter, emerging when the earth thaws. As they breed in spring, they produce a million little babies that whistle all day long, forage around the yards, and eventually get eaten by birds, snakes, coyotes, and who knows what else. By early fall, the remaining survivors dive back underground for another 7 or 8 months of hibernation.

About a month ago, an episode of whistle pig death and maiming broke out in my own yard. It was a fine spring morning and the ground squirrels were actively whistling and foraging. Suddenly, the squirrels made a collective alarm call whistle that grabbed even my attention. I looked outside to see that a Red-tail hawk had made a whistle pig kill right outside the window!

Here’s the hawk and its prey, a fatally wounded adult whistle pig, which lies in the bird’s shadow. You’ll also notice a faded tennis ball, one of my dog’s toys, that had just melted out of the snow. For a few minutes, the red-tail stood seemingly proud over its kill. If you click on the image for a closer look, you can see the hawk’s talon resting on the squirrel. You might also note its yellow iris, a sign that it is a juvenile.

Then the hawk abandoned its prey and the ground squirrel lay in the yard next to the old, ratty tennis ball. The debris that you can see scattered in the yard is elk poo. Elk poop all over the snow during the winter, and when the snow recedes, the poo pebbles remain. By late spring, the poo degrades into the soil, making an outstanding natural fertilizer.

A short time later, a different Red-tail hawk came to check out the whistle pig carcass. As you can see, this hawk is bigger and with different coloring, probably an adult. It stood observing the scene, but it never approached the squirrel. The green object in the photo, by the way, is the cover for my underground propane tank.

Once the hawks had permanently abandoned the unconsumed whistle pig, the ever-scavenging Black-billed magpie arrived to the scene. Unfortunately, without a sharp bill or talons on this unopened carcass, the magpie could only poke the squirrel’s eyes out and move on. The whistle pig remained in the yard for the rest of the day, but it was long gone by the following morning, probably picked up by a roving coyote overnight.

I’m not sure why the hawk killed the ground squirrel and didn’t eat it, but it made for an epically fascinating show.


4 Responses to “Death And Maiming”

  1. Bob Gentile says:

    From a stir crazy trail runner,
    awwww on the post below that is BS, u guys deserve some spring by now–geesh!

    So I guess you canceled the National Geographic cable channel since you have live episodes going on in ur backyard–lol

    ummm thats a lot of Elk poo poo also ur grass should be bright and green in no time.

    OK under the 15 day KM window— WOOO HOOOO 🙂

  2. Backofpack says:

    All I can say is thank goodness it disapeared by morning. That’s the kind of thing I have Eric around for. He’s right handy at getting rid of dead things so I don’t have to see them. Oh, he’s handy for a few other things as well…running the last mile or two of a marathon with me, being a wonderful Dad to our sons, fixing things up around the house…and loving cranky old me.

    Sheesh! How’d I get from a dead whistle-pig to Eric loving me?

  3. JeffO says:

    (I guess we show our bumpkin-ness by liking this sort of nature display.)
    That is so cool getting to see two Red Tails that close.

  4. chelle says:

    Funny, of all your amazing nature sightings, this is the only one that I can actually relate to as a New Yorker. I’ve seen our Central Park Red Tails attack the local squirrels and it is enough to make the runners stop in their tracks to watch. Often they target animals that are too big for them to carry off, so it’s pretty entertaining to see Pale Male (one of our hawks) valiantly trying to lift off with a pound too much of grey tail squirrel in his talons. I swear he looks embarrassed to have an audience when this happens.

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