We’ve lived on the side of this hill in northcentral Pennsylvania for over 49 years and have seen a lot of wildlife here – snakes and insects and amphibians, deer and bear and 124 species of birds. A few things have surprised us: the wet black bear tracks going through the breezeway on a rainy day, the eastern chipmunk gnawing the flesh from the head of a newborn cottontail, the camera trap images of a doe apparently eating from the leg of a dead fawn.
Some of the recent videos on a camera trap’s memory card added to the list of surprises –
There are quite a few cottontail rabbits around the house and in the woodland on the hill, so the video of the rabbit was no surprise. However, in those 49 years we’ve never seen a great horned owl on the hill and have only once, many years ago, heard one. That, in itself, is unusual since the habitat is suitable and there’s an abundance of potential prey. So it was quite a surprise to see the video clips of the owl catching one of the cottontails that shelters beneath a shrub thicket on the hill.
Apparently the approaching deer frightened the owl into flight. The dead rabbit must have been too heavy for the owl, so it was dropped. When the first deer smelled the spot where the owl killed the rabbit it licked at the snow – licking up the blood presumably.
The body of the dead rabbit attracted the two deer, which proceeded to lick the remains; one pawed at the carcass and also mouthed the rabbit, but they’re really not equipped to open the hide in order to access the flesh. No, the deer were not exhibiting compassion or trying to revive the deceased. White-tailed deer are known to eat meat, feeding on carrion and even occasionally killing fledgling birds and small mammals. From the video it’s not possible to determine if, other than licking the blood, the deer actually managed to eat any of the rabbit.
As the deer wandered off the almost immediate return of the owl leads to the conclusion that the owl had perched above the scene waiting to reclaim the rabbit.
A number of predators regularly appear in camera trap images from the hill – red and gray fox, eastern coyote, fisher – but this is the first time for a great horned owl. It’s also the second time one of my camera traps has documented deer as meat eaters.