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white-tailed deer

Out of the gray woods steps a trio of does.  They move with trepidation as they enter the the old pasture, which is just now starting to green up in the early spring sun.  The big old doe leads the way, stopping every few steps to cast her black nose into the wind and twist her radar-dish ears for any sign of predators.

They have come to graze in the twilight, eating the sweet grass  or early spring that was once meant for cattle and horses but is now a fine repast these final months of pregnancy. In just a few months, dappled fawns will be dropping, and the does will be stamping and blowing as the coyotes come slipping through the thickets. By then, the coyotes will have their own young with insatiable appetites for milk and regurgitated meat, and the flesh of fawns will play a major role in determining whether their pups survive until weaning or not.

But that drama is now a long way off. The best these three does can do now is eat the nutritious grass and feed the new life that stirs within them. This is the only thing they can do now to ensure some sort of good start for their babes to come.

Although they seem awfully banal to people living in West Virginia, where they menace flowerbeds, vegetable gardens, and long night drives on lonesome country roads, the white-tailed deer is actually one of the oldest hoofed mammals still in existence. Valerius Geist, a Canadian biologist and deer expert,  believes the species is over 3 million years old, a sort of living fossil among a family that includes the giant moose and the diminutive muntjacs.

In those three million years, it watched as the last of the bone-crushing dogs fell to the wayside. Borophagus, a sort of bulldog-coyote of this bone-crusher lineage, was probably among its first major predators, but it was unable to compete with the first jackal-like wolves that were just starting to come on their own.  That lineage of jackal-like wolves would evolve into bigger and harder running forms,  Edward’s wolf was the first to menace the white-tail.  The came Armbruster’s wolf, which grew heavier and more powerfully built, eventually become the dire wolf.  The Pleistocene coyote, somewhat larger than the modern species, came long to eat the scraps and lift the fawns in the thickets. A plethora of big cats, including the largest species of lion and the odd wandering jaguar took deer when they could, and the saber-tooth and dirk-toothed cats did the same. Massive short-faced bears probably took the odd deer as well. Whitetail noses and radar ears were made in this world of fell beasts.

They were here to watch the first woolly mammoths come trundling down the continent along with the long-horned bison that gave rise to our buffalo. They were run of persimmon groves by mastodons, those little furry forest elephant, now lost in the long march of time. The whitetails grazed among the three-toed horses and the early forms of the modern species, and among there number were twelve species of pronghorn, a tribe that consists of only a single species of these “fake antelope,” which wanders the Western plains and deserts. The whitetail shared its meals of willow twigs with the stag-moose, a cousin to the modern species that ranged deep into North America and, like all the rest, now extinct and mostly forgotten.

When Europeans came, the whitetail lived among the modern bison and round-horned elk. They were hunted by cougars and wolves of the modern species. Indigenous took them for hides and meat and sinew, and the first Europeans used them in much the same way.

But Europeans fed a market economy. Deer hides were worth quite a bit, as were those of buffalo and elk. Venison was also good meat, and the game herds shrunk. The elk and the bison disappeared, as did the wolf and the cougar. European civilization believed it had conquered nature here and now.

But the whitetails held on. Conservation laws were enacted in the early twentieth century. Deer from other parts of the country were brought in, and the recovery began.

The deer in this new world, free of competitors and predators, found themselves in a paradise their kind had never known before. They grew fat on acorns and dropped many fawns, and in few decades, they had grown strong and numerous in their new kingdom.

So numerous that some would argue they are a pestilence. Others become beguiled by the ivory-colored rapier crowns that the bucks wear in autumn and spend long days in the autumn on a quest to hold these rapier crowns in their own hands.

When I cut into a venison backstrap steak, which I’ve pan-fried medium rare so that it is still oaky and earthy and juicy,  I savor the bites. The flesh I eat is captured sunlight that beamed onto the oak trees in June, which became the acorns. The acorns fell and the deer devoured them, and this particular deer died to become the backstrap that my steak knife is cutting through.

But just as the venison is captured June light, it is also profoundly native. This is the flesh of the last surviving wild ungulate to roam these hills, a survivor from the age of the great beasts, when it was one of many things wild and free.

Though the elk may bugle again on some mountainside in Southern West Virginia, the whitetail is the one that withstood the onslaught .

The does to continue to graze in the pasture, but the wind shifts so they can catch my scent.  And they bound for the timber, native beings who hold stronger title to the land than I ever could. They now escape into a paradise of oak groves and autumn olive thickets, an eden that they inherited only through the caprices of man.

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Prepare for the cuteness!

This is from a documentary about brown hyenas on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, but the black-backed jackals stole the scene here!

They are like piranhas in canid form!

What is a coyote?

coyote profile pic

I am a coyote lover. No two ways about it.  I have always been interested in wolves and dogs, but in the past couple of years, I’ve had encounters with Eastern coyotes.  And they are every bit as fascinating. Western man has thrown every single weapon he could contrive at them, and all they have done is spread all over the continent.

So it was with great joy when I got a chance to read Dan Flores’s  Coyote America. I had heard the author interviewed on Steven Rinella’s podcast a while back, and I was really fascinated about what he had to say about Pleistocene megafauna on the North American Great Plains.

I also knew he was writing a book on coyotes, and I wanted get his take on them.

I’ve just started reading the book. I really enjoy his discussion about Native American traditions with coyotes. I am a damned, no-good Easterner, so I know very little about those traditions.

But I do have a quibble. It’s a friendly quibble. In one part of the book he describes coyotes as being as genetically distinct from wolves as humans are from orangutans and that the two species split from a common ancestor some 3.2 million years ago. He uses a lot of the paleontological data from Xiaoming Wang, who is a great canid paleontologist, who posits that coyotes evolved from directly from Canis lepophagus and that they are wholly a North American lineage.

Now, this is paleontology, and it’s not exactly the best way to determine evolution relationships between very closely related canid species. The reason why is that canids have a tendency toward parallel evolution. For example, the bush dog of South America has dentition that is very much like the African wild dog and the dhole, and at one time, it was suggested that the bush dog was actually a species of dwarf dhole. We now know from genetic studies that it is actually a close relative the of the maned wolf, and it is well-nested in the South American canid clade.

It is definitely true that coyotes resemble African golden jackals, but similarities in appearance have led to error here.  Molecular geneticist have recently found that African golden jackal is actually much more closely related to coyotes and wolves than it is to the Eurasian golden jackal. That means that two animals we thought were the same species actually turned out to be two.

And when it comes to the relationship between coyotes and wolves, molecular geneticists had long assumed that the two species split around 1 million years ago.  In countless dog domestication articles, the molecular clock has been calibrated around a 1-million-year-old split between wolves and coyotes. I have always thought that was weird, because the paleontology studies suggested a much older divergence.

Well, a recent comparison of wolf and coyote genomes from across North America revealed that the actual separation time was something more like 50,000 years ago. That means the animals we’re calling coyotes now aren’t the same thing as those million-year-old fossils.  Those animals are of evolutionary dead-ends that just happened to have a very similar morphology to a coyote in much the same way that African and Eurasian jackals do. Of course, we cannot get genetic data from such old fossils, but it could be that some of these dead-end canids might be more closely related to black-backed and side-striped jackals, which really did diverge from the rest of Canis a really long time ago. They are more divergent from the rest of Canis than the African wild dog and dhole are, and the dhole and African wild dog have their own genera.

If coyotes and wolves diverged only 50,000 years ago, then this raises an interesting taxonomic question. All extant wolf lineages diverged in the past 44,400-45,900 years, as a recent study comparing wolf genomes revealed.  These means the genetic difference between a wolf and a coyote is not much more than the greatest genetic variance between wolves. (Generation time are roughly similar in both wolves and coyotes).

This means that the creatures we’re calling coyotes now actually derived from the Eurasian wolf. The reason this animal looks so much like a jackal isn’t because it represents a primitive North American Canis lineage, but because the larger, pack hunting wolf from Eurasia couldn’t live very well at middle latitudes in North America. At the time, dire wolves were occupying this niche. There were also dholes coming into North America, which means that the pack-hunting wolf of Eurasia really had some strong competition. That means that these wolves evolved more toward the generalist jackal body-type and ecological niche. They did so in parallel to the Eurasian and African jackals.

This is very similar to what happened to the first radiation of Eurasian lynx into North America. Eurasian lynx are pretty large, weighing as much as 70 pounds, but they found the mid-sized cat niche already locked up in North America. So they evolved into the smaller bobcat. It just happened millions of years before the wolves that became coyotes came into the continent.

The fact that wolves and coyotes are this closely related and have exchanged genes so much across the continent raises some important questions about what a coyote is. The comparative genome study on wolves and coyotes showed that the animals called the Eastern wolf and the red wolf, which Flores considers valid species in the book, are actually hybrids between wolves and coyotes. I’ve long been a skeptic of the red and Eastern wolf paradigm, but this study actually makes me question coyotes.

One could actually argue that coyotes are a subspecies of wolf. This is a controversial thing to say, but it was once controversial to say that dogs and wolves were the same species– and now there is growing acceptance (at least among scientists) of this fact.

It is certainly true that all wolves, jackals, African wild dogs, and dholes do descend from a coyote-like North American ancestor.  But to assume that coyotes are directly derived from this ancestor is a major error, and one that has been falsified in the molecular studies.

If my interpretation of the genetic studies is correct, the coyote should be called the “thriving wolf.” Unlike the bigger ones, it was able to survive all that we threw at it. The more we persecuted it, the greater its numbers became, as did the vastness of its range. It is an adaptable, resourceful survivor, and that makes it the perfect “American avatar” to use Flores’s construction.

So that is what a coyote is.  It is the wolf that thrives.

 

 

 

 

 

They aren’t just earth dogs. These are Border terriers in Germany.

The little AWD puppy robot is so cute!

Bluetick

blue tick

It was that time in winter when the sun seems to rise for no other reason but cast down a few pallid rays and then sink below the horizon. It was a time when the gray clouds would come barreling in with snow squalls, but today the sky was cloudless. The land was covered in the dormancy and death of gray drab winter.

A pothole encumbered country highway follows the course of river. It follows it not because the river provides bucolic and pastoral scenery, which it certain does in the more roseate seasons of the year, but because the hilly land of rural West Virginia demanded that the roads be laid out along the paths of least resistance..

The road is meant to be a smooth-skinned snake of asphalt winding its way along the river, but the years of salt trucks and overloaded hauls of timber have cut chunks in its hide.  Some course are smoother than others, and a motorist can reach great speeds before bouncing a few tires in the tank trap that suddenly appears at the end of a straight stretch.

The river is wild. It flows down from the High Alleghenies on meandering tour of the hills, as it passes from the realm of the brook trout to the lair of the flathead catfish. Otters roam along its banks, their spraints marking their little highways into water where the suckers and the river redhorses are harried and killed.  In summer, the belted kingfishers line the willow and birch trees, diving down like winged javelins to spear minnows and shad.  During those same summer days, the long-nosed gars flit just below the surface of the water, slashing at any small fish that dares come near that jagged maw. Hidden in the murkiness, the Chautauqua muskellunge, the great river pike, lies in wait of mallard ducklings that might stupidly swim within striking range.  Soft-shelled turtles and stinkpots and snappers fill the river on those summer afternoons . Sometimes, they climb onto logs that half submerged to sun themselves before another good bout of fish-hunting in the murk and muddy.

But on this winter day, none of those things was stirring. The otters were asleep in their holts, and all the river fishes and turtles were hibernating. Nothing was about. Only a few vehicles zipped along the highway that day. Hours passed between them.

At one bend in the road was a bit of bottom land, where the river never flooded, and here, were several dog houses. Tied on a twelve-foot chain to one of them was a long-eared bluetick coonhound. His home was a dog house, and the chain compelled him to stay. Behind him flowed the wild river and its various denizens, but he cared for them not at all.

His name was Banjo, and the only thing he cared about was following the trails of raccoons.  He had learned from an early age that his neck would sting like a thousand static shocks if he tried to chase a deer or fox or opossum. The only quarry worth his time was the raccoon, which he’d run and run until it took refuge in a tree. And then he would let fly his baying at the tree trunks, the master would come with his fire stick, which would fire, and the raccoon would fall down where a hound could give its corpse a good mauling. In previous years, he’d run with three other hounds, who were also tied to houses in his dog lot. But the master was called away to work, and his time spent running hounds became shorter and shorter every year. He sold one hound, then another, and when left with only two, he’d sold the bitch and kept the dog. Banjo cold be used at stud and make a few dollars that way.

Banjo lived for the raccoon track. As soon as the fragrance of raccoon spoor would rise into his nostrils, he’d become so intoxicated with the fervor of chase that he’d bay out in excitement. All the best coonhounds do this. The Germans call a dog that bays on the track spurlaut, a feature that true houndsmen savor like the finest Champagne.

So driven was Banjo for the night quest after ‘coon that he had to be chained to a dog house. Virtually every fine scenthound is kept tethered in this part of the country. They are so driven to go off on a long trail that they soon find themselves miles and miles from where they started, or they might go trailing off so hard that they find themselves under the tires of a speeding pickup.  His desire to hunt perhaps exceeded that of his lupine ancestors. He loved his master, but he loved the hunt more.

All Banjo could do on these short winter days was to lie out in front of his dog house and let the weak sun rays warm his dappled coat. He would close his eyes and dream and dream of long nights running along the crayfish-invested feeder creeks that trickled into the wild river, where the raccoons made their trails out of the laurel thickets to the repast of the bottom-dwelling pinchers and freshwater mussels.

And on this day, Banjo slept lost in his hunting dreams. At times, his legs kicked as if he running some old trail, and occasionally, his lips would let loose a few moaning whimpers.

Thus was the life of working man’s hound dog. His breed has been typecast as running  with Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and later, Jerry Clower and Jimmy Martin.  But now his lot is cast with the working-class, native-born white prole, the people now so despised for their Trump votes and the fact that they see their noble existence in toiling with callused hands and hard shoulders and not in class struggle.

But through his veins coursed far nobler blood. His ancestors were the hounds that tracked the red deer and fallow through the king’s forests in Medieval England.  He also had ancestors who ran the boar and the murderous wolves in the South of France. These are the wolves that attacked peasant shepherds and cattle-herders in the forest and lifted children from firesides. His kind were never kept by anyone of low birth. They were the dogs of the king and stately duke or lord. Their “blue mottle hounds” and Grand bleus de Gascogne were transported to the wild country across the Atlantic and became the common bayer of the fierce monkey-badgers that roamed the cornfields and river bottoms.

However, when Banjo stood at the end of his chain in the winter sun, his noble bearing was hard to conceal. It was as if he belonged in a baying pack of wolfhounds, reading to go catch the murderous howlers that plagued the land. That hard hunter’s stare in his eyes  made him look so eternally different from the sloppy bloodhound of cartoons. His muscles rippled under his looser skin. He was more than a simple hound. He was a beast.

As the sun began to sink in the western hills beyond the river, the hound rose from his slumber and moseyed over to the water bucket. He drank in slushy laps that splashed hollow against the buckets sides.  Soon, the lady of the house would be coming with dinner. The master and his wife lived across the pothole road from the dog lot, and every evening she would come with a bucket of food. She would look both ways and scurry across the asphalt and dump out feed and run back home. She was not into hounds, but she loved her husband and so did her daily drudgery of feeding Banjo and checking his water bucket.

Banjo knew that if dinner came, there would be no hunt tonight, but if it came, the pungent taste of dog food and table scraps would break up the horrid monotony of the day– a win either way. So best to lap some water now and prepare for something.

As Banjo lifted his head from the water bucket, another smell wafted into his nose.  It was the sent of a skunk dog, the little red fox that he’d learned that he should never chase. Up the river about 100 yards, a young red fox came loping. He was born the previous spring in the great expanse of hayfields that lay south of the river, and he’d spent much of the winter fighting with big dog foxes and running from wiry Walker hounds.

His kind were no more native to the land of the wild river than the blueticks were. They were long-believed to be an English import, but we now know they came wandering south of out the boreal when they discovered that European man had created a bounty of mousing meadows when the forests were cleared.

And at this moment, the young red fox had come looking for some mousing meadows to call his own. Beyond the master’s house was an expanse of grassland that once contained a herd of stately polled Herefords, but now that pasture land was kept solely for the growth of hay. Twice a year, mowing machines and balers would come calling. The roars and clanging din of the machinery would fill the whole river valley, and then they be gone and the grass left to grow again.

It was a paradise for voles and mice and a small number of cottontail rabbits, and as a paradise for those creatures, it should have been a smorgasbord for a red fox on the hunt.

But for whatever reason, no fox had claimed it. It was perhaps too isolated from the pasture and cornfield kingdoms that the red foxes rule, and it took a particularly brave one to venture this far into the river country. Now, the young fox had only to cross the road and he would have his own estate. And the mice and the voles and the rabbits would soon have something else to worry about.

Banjo stared hard down the river bottom and when his eyes finally registered the movement of the approaching fox, he let loose a deep primal growl at the intruder.

The fox, approaching downwind, froze in his tracks. A dog was nearby. That couldn’t be good.  He sat on his haunches and tried to scent the dog. He then rose, trying to cast himself out of the wind’s current and in a direction where he could figure out where that dog growl was coming from.  After five minutes of casting, his eyes finally locked onto the canine form of Banjo, and he froze in terror.

Here was a dog much larger than the running Walkers who’d harried him all winter. This was a fell creature that could make short work of him, but then he noticed the big dog wasn’t lunging toward him at all.  It was as if it were somehow bound to that bit of earth on which it stood.

And his youthful curiosity suddenly kicked in. This was the first time he’d really had a good look at a dog.  A fox rarely gets a chance to examine that which might kill it. Its life is paranoia. It must always be ready to bolt at the slightest twig snap.

The great hound sniffed the air again. He breathed in the skunky smell of a red fox.  He’d never really had a chance to smell one for so long. He began to detect familiar odors emanating from the fox. The fox had a canine base to its smell, but it was not of the true dog kind. He’d smelled a fox a before, but never had he been able to catch these canine nuances before.

After a few minutes of study, the red fox knew his time was up and skip-loped across the asphalt and climbed the opposite embankment into a hedgerow of autumn olives.  When he crossed the hedgerow, he soon found himself in the big meadow– and there was not another dog fox to be seen or smelled!

The red fox is bound by the territories of other foxes. Coyotes might run him off or kill him, and humans do so on occasion. But his life, though short and paranoid, is relatively free.

Banjo, the great bluetick, might wish for such an existence, but he must live the bulk of his life on the chain.  But he truly lives when he’s let loose on a cool autumn night and the scent of boar ‘coon is rising along the creek bank.

The noble hound now lives the ignoble existence on a chain, yearning for his chance to  go night questing again for the old monkey-badger with the ringtail.

But in those moments when he runs the quarry and bay it treed, he experiences the profound ecstasy a hunting being in pursuit of prey. It is a joy that surpasses all the other joys in his life. He is a beast, and all his bestial energies are let loose in one great orgasm of chase.

The chained hound becomes the fell wolf dog once again.

 

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