My Dog’s Ode to a Chicken Bone
My fingers slid down the slobbery maw and I retrieved . . . a sharply shattered bone shard. This was the second “interesting” and highly desirable morsel my black Lab had discovered on our walk. The first, a discarded yet still delicious tube of Burts Bees lip gloss, I barely got to before it raced to her stomach. Roxy is both the retriever and the retrievee and she didn’t like my interference. Maybe I should feed her before walks. I enjoy watching my dogs work though, casting about, nose down, following tendrils of invisible scent, scratching a discoloration in the snow to freshen an odor or possibly unearth a treasure. As I followed her, I watched closely as she wolfed — an apt word- down a piece of discarded chewing gum that was gone in a flash, an errant rabbit pellet I did not pursue, and I pulled her away from the empty end of a waffle cone protruding from a snowbank. This dog’s name should have been Hoover. Dog experts might label her “food motivated”. Roxy will even swallow non-food things because they might be edible. Her motto seems to be “When in doubt, eat it then let the stomach sort it out”. Any bit of furniture stuffing, leather, bone, or foam rubber seems worth a try; who knows what nutritional value might be hidden in there?
Our walk was on one of those treasured warmish days of Canada’s mid-winter and the rapidly receding snow yielded all sorts of delights. As a wildlife biologist, I seek patterns in nature and I noticed Roxy’s obsession with snow wells at the base of spruce trees. The wells had broadened and the melting snow edge revealed cat kibble, thawing bits of fur, bones and egg shell fragments. So I started putting two and two together.
Birdwatchers, and I mean real watchers of bird behavior, will know that members of the crow and jay family such as Magpies, Common Ravens, Blue Jays, Steller’s Jays and Canada Gray Jays, plan ahead for long winters by storing excess food. They can’t eat a whole road-killed jackrabbit in one sitting but they can certainly haul off excess meat and discretely hide it under rocks, in snowbanks, and wedged in tree crevices for later use. Most wintering Magpie’s have nothing better to do it seems than taunting house cats, visiting their stored food caches, and waking us up before sunrise.
Years ago my bird watching helped me create a near-patentable product: the “Self-cleaning dog yard”. Two tablespoons of my magical product (canned corn) at each dog feeding would create dog waste that was irresistible to wintering Magpies. They would grab and fly off with these corn-studded dog-cicles to stash them elsewhere and -Voila! — I would never have to shovel dog poop again. The plan worked well until I moved into town and saw the neighbors staring up into their boxelder tree where feces were raining down and exclaiming “Oh my, there must be a HUGE bird up there!” I couldn’t externalize my dog duties any longer.
The other biological insight Roxy provided me was that the widely reviled Ravens and Magpies are actually biodiversity enhancers, even if they eat a few Robin’s eggs. Their food-caching behavior enriches the landscape. Studies by carrion ecologists — there really is such a field — have shown that Ravens and Magpies can quickly remove a large proportion carcasses and the vast majority of that was cached regionally. Instead of Roxy getting all that hidden meat, some of these tidbits would become windfalls to northern flying squirrels, Black-capped Chickadees, marten, red squirrels, mink, long-tailed weasels, woodpeckers and any other animal that likes carrion jerky. Thus, these birds are the sustenance providers to many wildland denizens and have the potential to bolster forest species diversity. The food stores they hide and never again find simply become fertilizer for plant roots or soil microorganisms. Nothing in nature is wasted, not even chicken gristle. Roxy knows this well and now I am considering changing her working title from house-wolf to hyena.