Lessons from the grave

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Ring-necked snake (very alive)

Happy and safe Halloween everybody!

Fall is here and the St. George peninsula is knee deep in it. Colors have changed, leaves have left and “crisp” has become the adjective of choice when describing the days. Loads of life and lessons in the out-of-doors right now, and at this time of the year some of those lessons about life come via death. Heavy, I know. There may be no scarier place for animals, and no better place to look for the remains of critters than the streets. Yes, it’s another road-kill update!

I start by mentioning that I am not a fan of road kill in any way, though I can imagine scenarios where one isn’t completely heartbroken when a “nuisance animal” or an overpopulated deer is sprawled out on the side of a road. But I am not one of those people, at least not currently. I do believe, however, if an animal gets nailed by an automobile and is left in a state of minimal grossness, then there is nothing wrong with taking a closer look. For sure, road-kill lessons are usually flavored bittersweet, but they are there nonetheless, ready to be absorbed.

Some folks prefer to look for road kill from cars, especially larger road kill like porcupine and skunk. But ask anyone who walks, however, and they will tell you “if you want to see dead stuff, walking is the way to go,” as pedestrians move at slower speeds and have a lot of road to inspect. In these regards, biking seems similar to walking (especially at the pace I pedal), but with biking you can cover more ground and, in theory, expand your road-kill observation range!

Watts Avenue road kill in Tenants Harbor is usually of the cold-blooded sort (as in cold-blooded animals) and we all know how hard it is to feel sympathy for them (I mean, come on—they can’t even generate their own heat? Have they no hearts?). Anyway, one could play “connect the dots” down the entire avenue of late, with the dots being the carcasses of grasshoppers and woolly bear and tussock-moth caterpillars. Recent lessons have also reflected an increase in ring-necked and garter snake activity—possibly starting to make their way to winter hideouts—as well as amphibian movements after rainy nights. Red-spotted newts (red eft stage), wood frog, and red-backed salamanders have all met their ends on Watts, even with its seemingly low traffic flow. Heck, I went out to take pictures of road kill for this column and as I was turning my bike around to take a photo I crushed a grasshopper with my bike tire! Just adding another “dot” to the local road-kill lesson plan.

And now for something completely different—we got a cat a little more than a year ago. “Vesspurrs” is the name he came with and the one he purrs to, so that’s his name. We added Vesspurrs to the family knowing he was an indoor cat and he hasn’t shown the slightest interest in going out the front door—and lost interest quickly in our awesome, new back door. He basically searches for the next warm spot to nap, and naps are highly advocated around here. Over time, Vesspurrs has made the basement his own “cat cave”—a feline sanctuary in which to hang, do his business, and escape the human scene when needed. Everyone seems happy and the upstairs smells better.

It wasn’t long before Leif found a tick on the cat. All fingers in the house immediately pointed in my general direction, and honestly, it was a story that made sense. Man gives cat a tick—instant classic. But soon Vesspurrs was turning up with gifts I clearly didn’t give him. Gifts for us, like partially autopsy-ized shrews and mice, dead salamanders, and a slightly alive ring-necked snake (that was the best!). All brought up from the basement. And then a second tick. Fingers were still pointed at me again, but with less passion this time.

Vesspurrs and a basement kill

October has been an active month for our indoor hunter. Cricket pieces have piled up—what a year it’s been for them and grasshoppers—and their increased numbers in the wild have been reflected in the amount of “basement-kills.” Among Vesspurrs’ recent catches have also been red-backed salamanders and spring peepers—“rainy night specialties.” He seemed most proud of the spring peeper he caught though, and even woke me up in the middle of the night to show me. The frog was long dead by the time I caught wind of it, one of many hoppers undoubtedly on the move that night. I was able to release one red-backed salamander outside (mostly alive) but found the remains of another a few inches away from its recently removed tail. It’s the cat in him and it was kind of gross to have dead amphibians on the kitchen floor, but he’s protecting us from the threatening critters invading our basement while giving us a hint about local animal behavior! Thank you Vesspurrs!

We’ve always had a “crossing the line when you cross into my house” policy when it comes to local critters, but I’m not sure if we were thinking of amphibians when developing that policy. It’s funny that getting an indoor cat, doesn’t mean zero animal kills by any means. Or how riding a bike doesn’t necessarily mean no road kill. In fact, if I put my mind to it I could probably come up with a somewhat impressive list of animals I have nailed on my bike. But that’s a column for another time—maybe next Halloween! Have a safe one this year by the way!

As far as Vesspurrs is concerned, I’m happy for him. An indoor cat that gets to hunt. And the prey comes to him, he just goes into his cave and waits. I just wish I would stop giving him ticks, for his sake!

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from the grave

  1. Ann Getsinger

    Brilliant and delightful writing, and a fascinating topic too. Just yesterday a friend and I were comparing qualities of a flattened garter snake versus a grey squirrel. Sad, real, and interesting.Thank you so much!

  2. Kathleen Fox

    Thanks for such an interesting article. I had a Mohawk friend years ago who, when she saw a dead porcupine alongside the road, would screech to a halt, jump out and toss the critter in the trunk. She would then use the quills to make lovely earrings. She tried to enlist me in procuring dead porcupines for her, but I never could bring myself to do it.
    But it’s good to know road kill is good for something!


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