The Early Bird Gets the Cat

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

Before there is new life, there must be death. In February, the deer and elk cast off their old crowns. Even as yesterday’s antlers fall away, new growth begins at the pedicle.

It was a Sunday afternoon and the weather forecast called for wind on the high desert. Brian Davis of Redmond calculated he had a few hours to look for antlers on public land between Bend and Sisters. He parked his car a little way off the road and felt the wind in his face as he walked up through the junipers and pines.

When the sun was high in the sky, he topped out on a knob and caught a glimpse of movement up ahead. A tawny body. Dappled sun on muscled flanks.

"I looked through the buckbrush and saw this big brown animal running. It had a long, black-tipped tail. He definitely saw me first," Davis said. "It was fifty yards away. I walked right onto it."

Brian whipped out his camera to try to get a picture and trotted up through the brush for a better look.

When he stopped, he looked down at the body of a partially eaten cougar.

"It looked like the ground was mown down where they fought, for about 10 feet in one direction and 20 feet in the other. And this one was the loser."

By the look of it, the two lions had battled it out over territory then the victor fed on the loser.

"He tore off and ate the back legs and then buried part of it about ten feet away," Davis said.

I loaned Brian one of my trail cameras, a Bushnell unit with infrared technology and he returned to the site the next day and mounted the camera on a tree. We hoped to catch a picture of the big cat if he returned to the kill.

Later in the week, I called Corey Heath, a biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife in the Prineville office.

"Generally speaking, cougars aren’t scavengers. That cat he saw had probably killed the other one then fed on it. If it was a male it was a territorial thing," Heath said. "Generally an adult male won’t kill a female, unless it’s a fight with her where she is defending her kittens."

Most experts estimate the number of cougars in Oregon between 5,700 and 8,000, up considerably from 1992 when there were approximately 2,000. With more lions, there are more incidents where one might kill another, out of hunger or territory disputes.

A trail camera can be posted on a tree and left to record the goings and comings of animals and other critters that make themselves at home in the woods. A motion sensor triggers the shutter, the picture is snapped. Mine is programmed to reset after 15 seconds, the images stored on an SD card.

Three days later we downloaded 468 images. After Brian posted the camera, the magpies were the first to return. They perched on branches above the carcass then hopped down. Often, one or more magpies stayed on watch.

Trouble showed up in the form of a golden eagle, three hours and 52 minutes after Brian had walked away from the site.

After dark, the wind blew and the camera snapped images of waving grass. It was 7:00 in the morning when the magpies showed up again. A case of the early bird gets the cat.

The first raven showed up 16 minutes later and poked around the perimeter for ten minutes before he saw his opening and began to feed. At 7:35 there were four ravens at the carcass and only two worried magpies. It was well they worried. The golden eagle showed up again at 8:55.

Something spooked the eagle and the ravens returned, watchful with one or two on guard while the others fed.

At 1:54 in the afternoon, a second golden eagle arrived. Unlike the other birds, the eagles could lift the hide up and turn it over and drag leg bones to get at bits of meat. The eagles worked till 5:00 then punched their cards and went home to start work at 6:48 the next morning.

If you were to find the site today, there would be little left to tell the story of a battle between two predators, the death that gave life to the winner and to the birds that scavenged the pieces.

Perhaps there would be fur stuck to the bark of a tree and cougar claws in the sand. You might find the skull Brian left in the stump of a lightning-struck juniper. But be sure you look over your shoulder. You never know who might be watching.

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