Thief

Bones and skulls are a good source of calcium and minerals for rodents. A close look at this deer antler reveals their tiny teeth marks.

On my trips through the bush I sometimes pick up these castoffs and remains. I currently had two old coyote skulls on the deck that I intended to add to a big pot of flowers.

But I hadn’t counted on the new neighbour.

This summer a changing of the guard occurred on one of the nearby middens (aka squirrel homes).

The young male squirrel must have assumed our house was part of his territory as he often appeared on the deck. On warm days he’d visit the bird bath for a drink. (Yuck. Bird poo and feathers.)

One day I heard a kafuffle outside. As I glanced out I saw my neighbour making off with one of the coyote skulls. It was slow going. The darn thing was nearly as big as him.

By the time I got outside the skull had landed on the grass and the black eyes that turned my way had a What?-Not-me! look. I retrieved the skull.

The next day when I went to plant the flowers the other skull was missing. I searched the deck, the grass, the gravel. Nope. Gone.

A few days later I visited my neighbour. Yup. There was the skull, perched on the pile of cone scales.

I paced out the distance: 50 metres (more than 50 yards). He’d dragged that skull through grass, across gravel and into a tangle of forest understory.

At that point I decided the flower arrangement didn’t need two skulls. He’d earned his.

Whose Bones?

As I followed a narrow trail not far from the red squirrel penthouse  a flash of white caught my eye.  A small skull, about 7 cm long (2.7 in), lay in the deep moss, a few vertebrae loose behind it. The two halves of the lower jaw, just centimetres away, were almost buried in the soft green.

The remains had lain there for some time, all flesh gone, bleached by air and wind and dappled sun.

Who died? I found no other remains but the skull was enough.

Its sharp teeth — including “Dracula” incisors — said carnivore. But who? The shape and size narrowed it down to a member of the weasel family. Even that is a big group — weasels, mink, otters, fishers, wolverines, skunks, badgers, martens and black-footed ferrets.

I know the predators who live in our woods so that eliminated some of the weasel clan. My book of skull drawings and a quick check online gave me the answer: a marten (aka pine marten aka American pine marten).

About the size of a house cat, martens are highly adapted to life in the forest. They’re fast, sleek and skilled at climbing. We once watched a life-and-death chase between a marten and a red squirrel in our yard. They were a blur of fur going up, down and around the spruce trees, leaping from branch to branch and tree to tree.

After several minutes the chase moved from our yard further into the woods. I’m not sure how it ended but it was one of those I-don’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing  moments.

Google “images pine marten” to see what they look like.


Marten   Martes americana
Red squirrel   Tamiasciuris hudsonicus