A pair of bald eagles stood watch from one of the highest branches of a diseased and skeletal-looking ash tree on the edge of the woods. As soon as the traffic on a nearby roadway cleared and there were no perceived threats in their field of vision, the duo went back to work.
These two eagles, part of Ohio's expanding population of our proud national symbol, used maybe a half dozen flaps of their wings to gain the momentum they needed to float back to the object of their attention just off the edge of the county road.
A raccoon was laying there, likely a victim of roadkill from the previous night. The eagles methodically worked that flesh with their sharp beaks, all while holding the carcass steady with the powerful grip of their talons.
They continually scanned in all directions, nervously watching for the return of any vehicles on that road, or for potential competition from other scavengers that was not likely to materialize. After close to an hour of concentrated feeding, the eagles moved on, disappearing over the top of a nearby woods as they headed back to their nest and primary hunting grounds along the Portage River system.
Through the course of the day, more of nature's recycling team went to work on what was left of that raccoon. There was a red-tailed hawk, a half dozen turkey vultures and a few smaller birds that visited during the day.
During the night, the scenario continued. A spotlight targeting the site an hour before midnight identified an opossum stumbling on the remains. A closer inspection a couple hours later showed field mice scattering towards the safety of tufts of corn debris. They wanted their share, too.
In a few days, very little was left of that raccoon, other than scraps of its hide and most of the bones. Over time, the sun and wind will dry the pieces of pelt and they will be blown into the ditch or the adjacent grain field.
The bones will weather in the elements, be crushed by the heavy farm equipment that uses all of the roadway and more, and provide a source of nutrition to the smaller mammals that make the edges of the fields and woods their home.
In a couple of months, there is nothing left. That adult raccoon that met a sudden and unexpected death after wandering into the path of a vehicle has been absorbed back into the ecosystem, and provided food for the creatures that share its domain.
Other night patrols in the area have happened upon coyotes and foxes working at the roadside, usually on a deer killed crossing the traffic lanes. Like many of the members of the furred and feathered clean-up crew, they prefer to do their work under the cover of darkness.
There is usually plenty to feast on for the opportunistic diners in our wildlife world. The best estimates by the folks in the insurance business tell us some 25,000 deer are killed on Ohio highways each year. Most of them are left by the roadside, and the scavengers and the elements team up to do the rest.
Nature's sanitation committee does a very efficient job of cleaning up. Within a couple hours of a fresh roadkill, those turkey vultures are usually first on the scene. When they soar, they appear to be looking for a food source, but often they locate a dead animal with a well-developed sense of smell.
The vultures often start the process, but over the course of days, weeks or months, there will be a relatively steady procession of pilgrims to the site. There will be a few squabbles, with the hawk chasing off starlings as they constantly interrupt his feeding. There will be long periods where nothing takes place, other than the relentless march of decomposition.
What takes place along the roadside after an animal is killed is much more about science than it is about sadness. Random death is not celebrated in the wild, but it is accepted. After that, it is just a matter of nature cleaning up after itself.
Matt Markey is the A-T outdoors columnist.
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