29 August 2005

Of maggots and dead birds: a rotten story I

Warning for the squeamish and youngsters: this series of posts will have photographs and descriptions of a dead bird in various stages of decomposition.

Day 0

Dead things don’t go to Heaven or Hell. They rot, get eaten and turn into soil. Life goes on. Many organisms have evolved to obtain their nourishment solely from dead animals or plants. In nature, nothing goes to waste and nothing lasts forever. A dead tree may take decades to finally turn into soil, but, as this series of posts will show, a small dead animal left out in the open when the weather is warm and humid will be bare bones in a matter of a few days.

One thing that interested me a lot during my teenage years was how organic matter decomposed. But far from being a morbid fascination, this was a purely scientific interest. Back then, my knowledge of science was still quite rudimentary and naive and, unfortunately, I did not have access to good scientific books or teachers. To satisfy my curiosity, I mostly asked questions to myself and did simple experiments (and took notes, some of which still survive). One of my experiments involved the sealing of an entire apple in a jar full of water to see how long it would take to rot.

So when I ran into a dead bird on the sidewalk on 31 July, I figured it was a perfect chance to rekindle my interest in this subject. But, no, I didn’t bring the bird home under my hat. Unfortunately, plastic bags are perennially littering the landscape and fortunately, there happened to be one nearby.

Once in the backyard, I quickly photographed and examined the bird, which, I believe, was a gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). Its neck appeared to have been broken, but it had no external injuries as far as I could see. The condition of the body and the lack of any smell indicated that it had died, perhaps, not more than an hour or so earlier.

Next, I put the bird in a plastic box with holes punched thru its lid, bottom and side walls. Then I placed the box in a secluded corner of the yard and secured its lid with a couple of large rocks. The last measure is necessary to prevent backyard body snatchers (raccoons, etc.) from gaining access to the body.

The purpose of the holes will become obvious in the next post.

While waiting for nature to get going, here are some good links on this subject.

Decomposition―What happens to the body after death?

Human decomposition after death

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