Would you buy this book?

Here's the proposed cover for Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals. I think it's pretty cool, but would be interested to hear your views. Would this cover make you pick up a book and consider buying it?

Top: The front
Below: The back.

The book is now set to hit stores on May 4 next year.

Black widow vs. Windscorpion

Here's a terrific photo sequence on black widow spiders. Among the menu items here is a windscorpion (here called a sun scorpion, which is a new one on me, and also known as a camelspider). I wrote about the interactions of these two arachnids in The Red Hourglass.

Death Cycle Part 6: The Conclusion

In the morning the chickadees took fright. They went scattering among the pines and took shelter there, invisible but loud. The squirrels took up the alarm next, machine gunning their screams across the yard.

The cause soon soared into view: two birds of prey, so high their colors were uncertain except for their creamy bellies; but even at that height they looked massive. One of them rolled beneath the other. They fell as they coupled, losing only a little elevation before they broke apart again. They coupled again and again, all the while tending north. When they had gone, it took the smaller denizens of the yard a good loud while to recover their composure. Only the butterflies, little fellows the color of, well, butter, seemed unaffected. They stumbled across the yard like oblivious drunkards. There were bits of cottonwood fluff in the air, a luxuriously slow snowfall.

The dead squirrel remained on the roof of the shed. As he dried, he was coming to look like a twisted strap of red leather. The flies and wasps were at him again. Each time I returned with my camera, the mosquitoes drove me away within a few minutes. The mosquitoes are clumsy this year, slow, much later than usual. It was only in the past few days that they started to bite me effectively. Mosquitoes embody the truth that you can never observe something without changing it. They were only active near the carcass because I was there looking at it, smelling delicious.

Speaking of smells, the carcass was beginning to stink. This problem had never been far from my mind. Even at our house, the smell of decay is not welcome in the yard. I realized I might have to abort the experiment to save my marriage. However, the problem was about to be solved for me.

All afternoon I worked at my desk, looking out of my basement window from time to time. No scavenger big enough to see appeared, though I heard the crows of the neighborhood as usual. At five in the afternoon, I looked out and couldn't see the carcass. I figured the shadows of the pines had made it harder to see at that hour, so I didn't rush out to investigate. When I finally did go ambling out an hour later, I found nothing of the dead squirrel except those few gobbets of jaw.

I searched the surrounding flower beds and grass and woods. Nothing. Even its smell had vanished.

What took it? It's tempting to suspect those awesome hawks, but I'll bet we'd have heard some real noise from the chickadees and live squirrels if a hawk had dropped that low. I'm pretty sure the shed roof is out of reach for the neighborhood cats, because when I first tried to set up a crow feeder I had to experiment to find a place where cats couldn't take all the meat. I'm putting my money on the crows, but I suppose I'll never know.

Sorting the Daddylonglegses

Before I barrel on with the ending of the dead squirrel thing, I thought I might take another stab at clearing up the daddylonglegs question, since people have asked about it. Basically, three totally different animals have been called by the name dadylonglegs:

1. Spiders of the family Pholcidae. These spiders are notable for their defensive habit of vibrating as if possessed by demons. If you don't believe me, find one in its web, poke it, and see what happens. They are also called cellar spiders, but so are lots of other things, so don't get me started.

2. Crane flies. These guys look like over-sized mosquitoes, but they actually make up their own family of flies.

3. Harvestmen. These look a lot like spiders, but actually belong to a different group of arachnids. In the picture here, you can see that the body is not divided into two different sections, which would be the case with a real spider. These critters are the ones I wrote about yesterday, so scroll down for a couple more pictures of them if the spirit moves you.

None of these animals hurts people. (Yes, I know this is supposed to be the dangerous animal blog; sue me.) All of them come up in versions of a myth. Supposedly, they have some devastating venom, but can't break human skin with their delicate mouthparts. It's not true of any of them. The spider can definitely bite a human, as I somehow managed to get myself bitten once, but it only hurt for a second.

Death Cycle 5: The Nocturnal Scavengers

At four in the morning I went out with a flashlight to look at the dead squirrel. It was 58 degrees, a good 20 degrees cooler than it had been in the bright day. A rim of lighter gray ringed the sky, but it was still essentially dark. I heard some sort of night birds singing before I went out, but everything went still when I stepped onto the porch. I thought of circling round from the front again, in case big sensitive-eared or –eyed scavengers like cats or raccoons were at work, but I didn't really feel much like going out at that hour and took the lazy man's approach, slipping a bit on the dewy grass.

As I approached the carcass, I heard no noise and saw no movement. The flashlight revealed far more damage than at last look. The head seemed to have been turned inside out and the upper body was massively depleted. It had all dried into a red topography. At first I saw nothing on the carcass, but then a dreamy, unfolding movement caught my eye. It was a harvestman. I looked closer to see what it was doing. It squatted, or rather lowered itself on its many legs, and seemed to be drinking or nibbling from the flesh. And then I realized harvestmen squatted all over the carcass, their bodies lowered to let their mouthparts latch onto the flesh.

The harvestman, also called a daddylonglegs, is often mistaken for a spider, but it's actually a different kind of arachnid. Like a spider, it has eight legs, but the main part of its body is an oval with no obvious divisions. (A spider has two body sections.) To add to the confusion, the name daddylonglegs is casually applied to some spiders and even crane flies.

I see harvestmen often in my yard, spindly-legged fellows hard to distinguish from the rotted leaf-stems they walk among. I have seen them clustered like a clump of mud under a dripping spigot. Sometimes a tangle of string hanging from the fence turns out to be a cluster of harvestmen; they run scattering at a touch. If I accidentally step on one, it will run away, leaving a leg or two behind. The disembodied legs spasm as if fighting a rear-guard action.

The harvestmen have no silk and no venom. They differ from most arachnids in being able to swallow not just liquids, but also solid chunks—for example, bits of flesh. They are said to repel attackers with a bad-smelling fluid, but I've never noticed the smell. In fact, I've never noticed much about them. For years I had the impression that they subsisted only on plant juices. Then I read that they scavenged a bit as well and even took small arthropods as prey. That made them seem worth investigating, but further years passed while other organisms held my attention. Henceforth, I'll be paying closer attention to harvestmen. Now I know what they get up to in the night.

Death Cycle Part 4: Dentistry

A crow was eating the squirrel an hour after we put it atop the shed. It seemed to work mostly at the head. From indoors, we saw it pull out gobbets. We took photos through the windows, since we knew opening the door would probably scare the crows away. Eventually Griffin and I tried to sneak outside for better pictures. We went out the front door, which was on the far side of the house from the carcass, and along a row of pines my kids call Mushroom Pass, but we weren't sneaky enough. As we approached, the crow hopped up to the highest part of the shed's roof, then swung casually away. I never got a clear shot.

On closer look, we could see three gobbets of flesh, each about an inch across, littering the shed roof. The squirrel carcass had been pulled around to a different angle. We had a good look at its bloody face. We still didn't see any real damage, though the gobbets made it clear that some had been done. While the crow was eating, I had the impression it might be digging in through the mouth, avoiding the difficult job of breaking the hide. A crow is lousy at tearing hide, and in fact will sometimes guide a bigger scavenger to a carcass so it will do that work and leave the crow some scraps.

A crow swung by about 20 feet up as we stood near the shed, as if checking to see whether we'd gone. We heard another crow calling, irritably as it seemed to me, apparently in communication with the first. I was afraid our presence might contaminate the scene, make the crows reluctant to return even after we'd left. On the other hand, I've seen crows standing on the same deer carcass beside a bald eagle, so they aren't exactly timid. I also recall a time when Beckett left his sandwich on a picnic table. He noticed crows nibbling at it, so he chased them off, waving his arms and screaming. While he was telling Tracy about it a moment later, she saw the crows a few feet behind him, carrying the slices of bread away.

Later on, I found that those morsels of flesh extracted by the crow had dried a bit. One remained a mere vague lump, but the other two were now recognizable. Both were parts of jaws, lined with little molars. One of them had a big rodent incisor far forward of the molars, with a characteristic rodent gap where many mammals would have a canine tooth.

Next: The Nocturnal Scavengers.

Death Cycle Part 3: The Insects

Within half an hour of its death, the roadkilled squirrel was agleam with golden-green blowflies. They clustered especially around the bloody face. I could see them packing themselves into the mouth. Others were clustered under the belly. Maybe the squirrel had been wounded there, though I hadn't noticed any wounds when I placed the carcass on the roof.

Blowflies are often the first scavengers to arrive at a kill. They can smell death from miles away. Their mission is not only to eat, but to lay eggs. Their maggots often do more than any other animal to dismantle a carcass. In hot weather, their eggs may progress to larvae and then to pupae in only a few days.

I wasn't surprised to see the flies, but I was surprised by what I saw flying among them. It was a yellow-and-black wasp. I don't know the name of the species, though I've seen it many times buzzing innocuously around my yard. It's a smallish wasp, hardly bigger than the blowflies. I'd really never even been concerned about its sting, because I see so many more formidable wasps. I'd also never given much thought to what this kind of wasp eats.

As the wasp flew around, it seemed remarkably clumsy, because it kept colliding with flies. I thought it was trying to muscle through the flies for a better feeding position on the carcass. Then the wasp and a blowfly fell struggling to the shed roof, grappling on the shingle. In a moment the wasp flew away, graceful now, and the blowfly was in her grip. Since they were roughly equal in size, I was surprised the wasp could lift her victim and cruise away with such apparent ease.

The wasp, or one who looked just like her, returned and took another victim. This time I saw her flying among the flies but didn't see her grapple with one. She flew away and I thought she was going empty-handed, but as she turned in the air I saw the dark gleam of a blowfly.

A wasp, depending on its species, make several uses of a fly. Some worker wasps chew up other insects as food for the young of the hive, spitting it directly into the waving mouthparts of the larvae. Among solitary wasps, many paralyze other arthropods with a sting, lay eggs on them, and seal them up in nest of some sort. The hatchling wasp larva then eats the victim, usually without killing it for a long time.

I saw several of these wasps at work over the course of this little adventure. They were the first scavengers to arrive when light came the next day, three of them struggling to get into the squirrel's mouth or under its belly. I wasn't sure what they were doing at that point, since there were no blowflies to prey on at that cool hour. They may have been eating flesh from the carcass. Or could they have been interested in the eggs and larvae of the flies?

There's more to come, including a startling scavenger in the night.


Death Cycle Part 2: The Squirrels Hold a Funeral

After we put the roadkilled squirrel on the roof of the shed, I went inside. Half an hour later, there was news. Tracy said the squirrels were pitching a fit. She added, not necessarily seriously, "They're holding a funeral."

I went outside. At first I had a hard time hearing them. Someone was mowing a lawn, and my sons Beckett and Griffin were on the patio knocking their action figures into the wading pool; a blue jay was complaining about something, and a crow barked like a chainsaw with asthma. But then I heard the squirrel voices, some small and soft, some louder. They all chanted in short steady barks. They took breaks, but the pattern once they started up again was the same, a monotonous and steady chant. I walked out toward the shed, keeping an eye open for squirrels. The sounds told me I was getting closer. When I neared the shed, all but one soft squirrel voice stopped. That one voice was close, and I spotted its source on a pine branch near the shed. It was a small squirrel, its fur very red and fresh-looking.

Until then I hadn't really thought about what species of squirrel I'd tossed on the shed. It seems clear, though, that it was a gray squirrel, whereas these chatterers, or at least the one I could see, were American reds. These species are enemies. The little red kept chirping. It seemed to be looking down at the carcass. When it saw me, it didn't panic, but slowly moved away along the branches until I lost sight of it.

I hadn't at all anticipated this reaction from the other squirrels of the neighborhood. How to explain it? Before I realized the chatterers were a different species, I had imagined they were spreading news—"Hey, Charlie's dead!"

A little reading tells me that scientists have made some headway in understanding squirrel communication. Apparently, when grays chant slowly, it means some danger has passed. I don't know whether the reds have a similar system, but I suppose it would make sense here—they noticed their enemy was dead and they told their friends.

As I stood looking that first afternoon, the live squirrels thrashed around in the trees near me quite a while. At one point a little rain of pine needles fell as some violent motion stirred the branches. I saw the little red several times. The picture shows—well, nothing. They were always too fast for me. The next morning, Tracy reported a lot of squirrel chatter from the yard, with some fast, high voices and some slower, deeper ones. They all fell silent when the crows began to call.

However, a lot happened before that. More in my next installment.


Death Cycle

I am constantly surprised by how much I don't know. The latest case in point presented itself around noon yesterday. From the living room window, my wife, Tracy, noticed crows swooping up from the road, but she couldn't see what they'd found. The lilac bush was in the way. My son Parker and I looked out and saw road kill—a furred body with a white belly. It looked like a big squirrel, which is what it turned out to be.

If you've read The Red Hourglass, you already know I like to do experiments others might find a little macabre. The fact is, Parker and I had been looking around for a carcass for a while. People are always talking about life cycles, but we wanted to inquire into death cycles: What happens to the body of an animal when it dies? Yes, I know—scavengers and bugs and rot. But we wanted to know more specifically.

At this season, the highways of Wisconsin are strewn with the carcasses of white-tailed deer and raccoons. But we were hesitant to toss a carcass into the trunk of the car—every carcass we came across seemed like an opportunity to get run over, and then there was our concern over managing the whole thing in a sanitary way. Besides, I think there are laws about deer carcasses, designed to keep people from hunting without a license and claiming they came across roadkill.

We went out the back door so our noise wouldn't scare the crows and circled round. However, the crows had already left, probably because of the traffic. As we watched, several cars skirted the squirrel. One bumped it slightly. We thought half the head was already missing, but a closer look showed it was there all right, just a bit bloody. It had an extreme underbite, as rodents do, making it look defaced. The only real damage we could see was that its eye, the one that ought to have been on top, was missing. The crows might have removed it. The asphalt showed an eight-inch fan-shaped splatter of blood. I put a flathead shovel near the carcass and Parker used a rake to pull it onto the shovel.

We put the carcass atop the shed in our back yard at the edge of some woods. I have been using this spot as a feeder for the crows, mostly just giving them our table scraps to see what they'd eat. I thought perhaps the crows would feel more comfortable eating it there, since it's an established feeding spot and they'd be safe from cars.

Only a day has passed, and I've already learned half a dozen amazing things, involving animals I never expected. I'll tell about it over the next few days.

Warning: Both the story and the photos to come are pretty gruesome.


More Chimpanzee Escapes

The latest chimp escape has occurred at the Chester Zoo in England. More than 30 primates made a break for the kitchen. No one was hurt, apparently, though the zoo was evacuated.


Popular Mechanics, which seems to be on an animal attack spree lately, has also published this first-hand account of an attack by a rabid skunk.

Animal Attacks in the Suburbs

Popular Mechanics has a good article this month on human-animal conflicts in the suburbs.
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