Dec. 18, 2002
CHRIS NISKANEN, /St. Paul Pioneer Press
Two weird tales from the wild
Television has made a bundle off a new genre of wildlife-related programming, but crikey, you don't have go far to have an unusual encounter with nature. Sometimes it can happen in your backyard.
One of these tales is about a three-legged deer, the other about a bird that didn't make the fall migration to a warmer climate. Neither story line is one you'll see on "The Crocodile Hunter."
But both tales are testimony to wild animals' powerful will to survive.
The deer story begins last Sunday afternoon when I happened to see a brown animal lying on the frozen lake behind my house. A look through the binoculars confirmed it was a deer. After a moment, it stood up and hobbled toward shore. That's when I realized at least one of its legs was severely injured.
A friend who was also watching the scene unfold said, "You have to put that poor animal out of its misery."
Since it was the last day of the muzzleloader deer season and I had a license, there was legal means for me to put the animal down.
I walked out on the lake and found the deer hunkered in the cattails. Two ice fishermen sauntered over from the other side of the lake. "A dog has been chasing the poor deer around,'' one of the anglers said. "I'm glad to see you have a gun."
The deer stood up in the cattails and, after making sure I had a clean shot, I put the animal down. The terrorizing dog was nowhere to be seen. I walked up to the deer and made an amazing discovery: It had only three legs. The front left leg was missing just below the shoulder. The missing leg was apparently an old injury — the shoulder was completely healed. The deer had lived for quite some time with three legs.
Its other front leg, however, was recently broken, either because of a separate accident or from the encounter with the dog. The deer was able to survive on three legs, but not two and a half.
It was a great relief to see the animal was out of its misery, but remarkably the deer appeared healthy in all other respects. It was a sizable buck, too. Its antlers had recently been shed, probably from the additional stress of the newly broken leg. I field-dressed and tagged the deer, then took it to a butcher, who said, "Other than having three legs, there's nothing wrong with this deer. How would you like it processed?"
Earlier this week, I was telling my deer story to Bill Marchel, a wildlife photographer who knows a lot about deer, when he said, "I've got my own tale of survival."
He was recently walking across one of his backyard ponds when he noticed a hole in the ice about the size of a coffee can. Other than a pair of coyote and bobcat tracks circling the hole, there were no signs of what made the opening. Bill was curious enough to sit down and wait to see what would appear. Within minutes, a small black head poked out.
Now Bill was really curious, so he got some twine, made a slip knot and put it around the hole. When the black head popped up again, Bill tightened the string and caught the animal.
It was a pied-bill grebe, a duck-like marsh bird that normally would have flown south for the winter. But the grebe apparently wasn't able to migrate, so as the pond froze over, it lived in the small hole. It was able to dive under the ice and eat minnows, then use the hole for breathing. It had survived attacks from a coyote and bobcat, but without any open water to facilitate a take-off flight, it was doomed to eventually freeze in the ice. "I figured it had just one more night,'' Bill said.
The grebe now is a resident at an animal rehabilitation hospital in Garrison, Minn. After regaining its strength, the grebe will be shipped to a wildlife refuge down south, possibly Oklahoma, where it will be released into the wild.
Now that's a survival story fit for television.
Chris Niskanen can be reached at email@example.com.
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