Death Becomes

During our recent stay in the USA, a cardinal had an unlucky fatal collision with the patio doors at the back of the house. The unfortunate bird was either a female or a juvenile male, from its mixture of buff-brown and orange-red plumage. Adult male cardinals are, of course, a bright scarlet. Gingerly, I extended its wing. Two primary feathers on each were only about half grown, and since cardinals don’t lose and regrow their flight feathers during their first summer I could see this was an adult female.

By coincidence I was partway through reading Bernd Heinrich’s book Life Everlasting, a lovely little meditation on the process and meaning of death in the animal world. In it he describes a series of experiments conducted at his cabin in the Maine woods, in which he left out carcasses in order to study the behavior of Nicrophorus beetles, known as sexton or burying beetles. What more fitting burial could I arrange for the recently expired cardinal than one conducted by beetles? I took her down to the edge of the woods and retreated, hoping the insect undertakers would soon arrive.

The next morning, about 8 o’clock, I discovered the cardinal had moved about three feet across the forest floor. She lay there, twitching ghoulishly, animated by creatures unseen; her face was now badly eaten away, whereas the afternoon before only her eyes had been consumed, probably by ants. To my delight, a sizeable, orange-spotted sexton beetle suddenly appeared from underneath her lifeless body and began scurrying around.

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What the Nicrophorus usually do is move a carcass a short distance until they find a patch of soft ground to their liking. Here they undermine the deceased until it sinks into the soil, at which point they can finally lay eggs in their newly created, food-rich nest chamber. Having hauled the cardinal this far from where I’d originally set her down, the beetle had obviously emerged to test the soil and find a suitable final resting place. It scuttled from spot to spot, returning to the cardinal each time, occasionally disappearing partway into the litter.

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Whilst our afternoon tea brewed, I went back out to check on its progress. The cardinal had moved another foot or so, and her head was now completely covered over. There was no sign of the beetle, though I wasn’t particularly surprised – they tend to be most active at night in order to avoid hungry birds. A few brilliant green blow flies were settling for brief moments on the cardinal’s tail.

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I then had to leave the bird in the woods for a couple of days whilst we visited some friends. On returning I was somewhat disappointed to find it much as I had left it, albeit slightly better buried. Only her wings and tail now projected out of the ground, but I might have expected the beetles to have finished the job in that time. Perhaps they were disturbed, or perhaps only a single beetle had been working – I only saw one – and was unable to attract a mate. The life cycle of Nicrophorus beetles is complex and fascinating, and I urge curious readers to pick up a copy of Life Everlasting or another authoritative source and read more.

Death may seem a gloomy topic, but it is in the end not an ending at all, but part of nature’s great recycling scheme, breaking down the old to give rise to the new.

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2 thoughts on “Death Becomes

  1. Pingback: Considering Birds | Chris Foster

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