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Murder on Christmas Eve

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. Neighborhood children nestled in their beds, reels from TikTok dancing in their heads; only yards from the pillow where my head did lay, a murder occurred, the coyotes did slay.

Apologies to Clement Clarke Moore, I couldn’t resist.

The Discovery. Early Christmas morning I watched birds flying in, out, and around the bird feeders behind my house. The sun was breaking through the cedars, shining brightly, reflecting through the sliding glass doors. A single crow caught my eye, launching from the ground to a nearby oak less than 100 yards away. Not far, another crow walked the hillside, pecking through the leaves. Something of interest to crows was on the ground. I picked up binoculars and scanned the spot. A bright pinkish mass lay in the disturbed snow and leaves. Something dead. Other crows were cawing from the trees in celebration.

I slipped on my boots and grabbed a coat. The temperature was seven degrees. I snatched my gloves and walking stick and headed out the door. The rear of the house looks out over a wooded bowl, a gentle downward slope then rising up to a cedar grove. From this vantage point I can see most everything moving through the property, and I look and watch every day, regularly. I walked down to the small ravine and then climbed up and over to the carcass, approaching with an investigator’s caution, not wanting to miss clues or add confusion to clutter. I studied the scene of the crime.

The Victim. As I suspected, the victim was an adult white-tailed deer, gender likely female. Many deer pass through this area, feeding on acorns, checking for scraps near the feeders, sleeping in the cedars on cold nights. Two evenings prior, 11 deer including four bucks wandered through this very spot, feeding and sparring with one another on their way to the neighbor’s field; last evening before dark, seven deer did the same.

The Scene. I stood over the carcass amazed but not surprised. I’ve seen this pattern before. An intact spinal cord, ribcage, one rear leg, and a portion of the hide. Three legs gone, head gone, no sign of any viscera; all internal organs cleanly gone. On the ground tufts of hair and specks of blood.

Looking out from the victim a distinct path could be seen in the heavily disturbed snow and leaves. The deer had been dragged upward along the hillside about 40 yards. I followed the path walking backward through time. More hair, blood here and there, tiny pieces of flesh and fragments of bone. Tracks of coyotes, maybe three, maybe more.

The drag path widened until I reached the kill zone. Heavily disturbed leaves. All the snow gone. Large tufts of hair. Large amounts of bright red blood frozen in the leaves and over fallen branches on the ground. A frozen yellowish mass, stomach contents, pieces of fiber and acorns. I extended my search out through the woods looking for missing parts and pieces. Nothing was found, everything consumed or carried off. I tried to envision the struggle, the final moments, the kill, the feast. It was certainly brutal.

The Circumstances. It’s impossible to know precisely what happened but not too hard surmise a likely scenario. I walked through the cedars at the top of the hill where I found a cluster of seven deer beds about 50 yards from the kill site. Coyotes cruise these fringe areas frequently. Perhaps the deer were spooked from their beds by a marauding pack and the victim simply zigged when it should have zagged. Or maybe it wandered a little too far from the herd, browsing acorns in the darkness, its silhouette exposed against the snow, and was simply ambushed.

Time of Death. I went to bed around 10:00 p.m. Beforehand, I stoked the woodstove, checked doors, and turned on the back light for a moment to see if anything was lurking around the bird feeders. All was quiet and still. I slept soundly. Cold weather meant closed windows so all I could hear in the night was the whirring of the furnace and an occasional low whistling from the woodstove. I never heard the commotion so close to the house.

I pulled the SD cards from nearby cameras looking for more evidence. On camera one, a red fox seemed to be hanging back from the site at 10:17 p.m. watching from about 120 yards away. At 1:15 a.m. camera two detected a fox leaving the kill site carrying something large, presumably a piece of the deer, and returning 15 minutes later. At 3:06 a.m. a fox can again be seen on camera one sitting watching the site. At 4:00 a.m. a doe was detected a short distance from the carnage on camera two; by this time the coyotes must be gone. My conclusion is the deer was killed between 10:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m., a three-hour window. The deer was taken down, killed, and nearly completely consumed or carried off in pieces in the dark in less than seven hours.

The Aftermath. Over the course of Christmas Day, I kept vigil. The site and remains would be an attractant, and I was curious what would show up. I considered removing the carcass to a nearby ravine but watching nature’s theater unfold seemed a better choice. Rarely do we get to see something like this so completely. Crows remained near or onsite all morning, always willing to take advantage of another’s misfortune, and with no vultures around, the picking was easy. Late morning a bald eagle arrived; I don’t recall ever seeing one actually on my property before. The eagle watched the crows from high above the carcass like an overlord. With miles of land and water to consider, how did it find a dead deer in my woods? The crows are braggarts. The eagle would return the next day and sit among the crows, picking meat from the bones. A red shouldered hawk would also make a stop on the second day. An immature red-tailed hawk on day three. Nothing is wasted.

Funeral for a Friend. Around 1:45 p.m. on Christmas Day six deer arrived, slowly drifting in from the south. Aware of their surroundings, they moved slowly and deliberately toward the carcass. They seemed relaxed, calm, not on high alert. Two of the younger deer approached the carcass, stopping to look and sniff from a short distance. The others moved through, slowly walking the drag path to the kill site, nosing through the disturbed leaves, hair, and blood. They lingered for twenty minutes. It was an uncanny and poignant scene. The only thing missing was Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

At the onset of night, four silhouettes moved down to the site – the bucks who regularly travel through the property, frequently seen following the group of does and fawns. They too, slowly passed the carcass, walked the drag path, and the kill site until they disappeared into the shadows and rapidly falling darkness.

Reflection. Many deer have died on our land, mostly by my own hand. Nature has taken three of which we are aware. Coyotes killed a newborn fawn a few years ago. Another fawn died this year when a branch fell and broke its neck, and many years ago, a tree fell on an adult buck. All of these, random or not, provide an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of survival in the presence death, and each is a stark reminder of my own association to the land, these deer, this death, and the upshot. On day four the snow melted, and the neighbor’s dog carried off the carcass. Evidence of a crime is now very hard to find, and the murder on Christmas Eve has now been reduced to a secret known only by a select few, and no one’s talking, except the crows.

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