For those of us restoring Decatur County oak savanna one of the biggest problems is deer. Not only do they eat the replacement oak sprouts, but flower buds of the most conservative forbs. The more conservative the plant, the better they like it. False hellebore (Veratrum woodii), lady’s slipper orchids and MIchigan lilies (lLilium michiganense – flower buds of these forbs all are fodder for the hoofed rodents. Of the hundreds of wild lilies in our West 40 unit, I’ve only ever seen one in bloom. We can protect the yellow lady’s slipper orchids with hoops and deer netting but the false hellebores and lilies are too numerous cover. Instead we take advantage of the January antlerless deer season to kill as many does as possible.
Two of our local friends do the hunting and usually kill about ten does each season. They do their own butchering and return the carcasses to Timberhill to be recycled as bald eagle food. Dumped in the border between the ridgetop prairie and the hickory grove west of the house where Bill and I can enjoy watching the bald eagles.
When we first moved to Decatur County one of our neighbors told us he had seen an eagle nest along the Weldon River south of our property. But we never expected to see bald eagles on our property. One thinks of their habitat primarily in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. In Iowa I knew that they were found along the major rivers, but was surprised to see them in Decatur County each winter, especially during deer hunting season.
Black crows descended on the deer carcasses almost immediately after they were unloaded. The next morning I saw a bald eagle perched at the top of the tallest hickory overlooking the remains. At mid-morning I watched him head-down, grasping at a chunk of bright red meat with his golden beak. As the week progressed we saw more eagles. By the end of the week we observed five eagles feeding at the same time as two immature eagles soared overhead. One eagle decided not to share and took off with the meat clutched in his claws.
The carcasses provide food for a number of other birds and mammals among them red-tailed hawks, raccoons, and coyotes. By the end of March there will be nothing left but a few bones.
(Photos by Bill Brown)