Microorganisms inside a deer’s four-chambered stomach enable cellulose in the plant material consumed to be digested. In winter, the microorganisms within the deer stomach are different from the microorganisms in spring, summer, and fall. This change allows deer to digest a diet of woody browse during winter months and turn the high-fiber diet into proteins through intricate physiological processes. Among their preferred browse are White Cedar, Yew, American Basswood, Alternate-leaved and Flowering Dogwood, Maples, Staghorn Sumac and Witch Hobble.
Offering food items during this period other than woody browse (such as hay) is detrimental to deer, as it requires different microorganisms in the stomach in order to be digested. Thus, even though a deer’s stomach might be full (of hay, for instance), it may starve due to the inability to digest it. (Photo: White-tailed Deer browsing on Eastern Hemlock)
Such creative and informed answers to yesterday’s Mystery Photo, and many that were right on the mark! To set the stage, several 2” to 4”-deep holes riddled the ground under a stand of Eastern Hemlocks. Something had obviously been digging for something, but who and what? Close inspection of the holes revealed two things. The animal that had dug the holes had run into some thick hemlock roots, and with a clean 45° angle cut, had snipped them in order to have access to the soil beneath them. Secondly, some of the holes had pea- to marble-size, spherical tan objects that resembled puffballs both lying at the bottom and wedged into the sides of the holes.
Only because I had read Paul Rezendes’s Tracking & the Art of Seeing years ago did I recognize these holes and spherical structures within as the work of an animal looking for false truffles (a genus of fungi) to eat. By putting the various clues together – a hemlock stand, 3” to 6”-wide holes, clean incisor-snipped roots, and a few remnant truffles – the mystery at to what was being sought was solved.
As to who had done the digging, white-tailed deer, squirrels and porcupines all fancy false truffles. Both porcupines and squirrels have incisors that would make a clean cut through the roots. If porcupines had been digging here, there would likely be scat and/or quills lying about, which there were not. Thus, most likely it was a squirrel that had smelled, unearthed and eaten the false truffles.
Rezendes found that the truffles he discovered had dried spores inside them, and assumed that this made them undesirable to the animal that unearthed them and therefore they were not eaten. The spores of the truffles I found were not dried out, so I have no idea why they weren’t eaten, but I’m very glad they weren’t, as their presence allowed me to solve this mystery and see this phenomenon which I’ve been looking for for decades.
It may interest some to know that false truffles and Eastern Hemlocks have a symbiotic relationship. The fungi are attached to hemlock roots, so the minerals and water they absorb are available to the hemlocks. The hemlocks provide the fungi with sugars that they (hemlocks) produce through photosynthesis. Squirrels (and porcupines and white-tailed deer) and eastern hemlocks have a similar mutually beneficial relationship in that hemlocks provide the truffle-eaters with food, and the squirrels, porcupines and white-tailed deer disperse the spores of the truffles they’ve eaten. (Caution: Do not eat false truffles – they are considered toxic to humans.)
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Lying at the base of a large Eastern Hemlock I recently found two piles of bleached bones. One pile consisted of mostly vertebrae; the other pile had numerous tibias, humeri and ribs. All were the appropriate size and shape to have come from several Eastern Chipmunk skeletons – at least four or five. How did they end up in two distinct piles?
The lack of any fur indicated that regardless of how these bones came to be here, they were deposited quite a while ago. The lack of any partial skulls or jaw bones and the large number of bones in each pile led me to believe that these were not the remains of two pellets that had been regurgitated by resident Barred Owls. No wild owl pellet I’ve ever dissected, including the large pellets cast by Snowy and Great Gray Owls, has contained even half this many bones, and most contained at least part of a jaw bone.
If not pellets, then scat? How likely is it that a predator could catch and consume multiple chipmunks rapidly enough so that they would end up in the same pile of scat? One feasible explanation could be that a fox, coyote or fisher preyed on young, inexperienced chipmunks, but the bones were adult-size bones.
Perhaps these two piles are the remains of a predator’s cache – perhaps a bobcat?
The possibilities are endless as to how this chipmunk graveyard came to be. However, none of the theories proposed here can explain the dissimilarity between the types of bones in each pile. If any naturally curious readers have insight into this phenomenon, your thoughts are welcome!
There are two main ways that woodpeckers and occasionally other birds remove bark in search of insects beneath it. One is bark sloughing, where a bird pries off the entire dead layer of bark on a tree (see NC post on 12/5/14). Another method of locating insect larvae that both woodpeckers and nuthatches employ is the removal of individual scales of bark. This is referred to as bark scaling. The pictured hairy woodpecker has removed much of the bark of a dead eastern hemlock using this method.
One of the most obvious signs associated with porcupines is the presence of “nip twigs” on the ground – severed tips of Eastern Hemlock branches dropped from above after porcupines have eaten the buds off of them. It usually doesn’t take long for White-tailed Deer in the area to detect this easily-accessible source of food. Tender tips that would be out of reach without the assistance of porcupines are quickly consumed by White-tailed Deer. Look for deer tracks and scat beneath trees in which porcupines are feeding. (Note wide porcupine path on left leading to den tree. All other trails were made by deer.)