the driver had no time to react.
The screech of brakes came a split second after the unmistakable sound of a body being hit. The victim staggered out of the woods. It was a buck.He lurched past me, tacking sideways as strands of ruby-red blood roped from his open mouth. He almost collapsed in the river I was fishing, but made it up the far bank and into a stand of trees.
The river was the Rouge, in the heart of the urban wilderness northeast of Toronto. It was late September last year, and I was after the salmon on their fall spawning run.
Deer are quite common in the Rouge, and their abundance leads to occasional fatal encounters with cars. The road this buck had crossed was only a couple of hundred feet away.
I crossed the river and found its blood trail. The buck had barely made it into the trees before collapsing. It was dead. Steam rose from the blood pooling around its head.
My appetite for fishing disappeared, and I headed home. As I drove, I idly wondered what would happen to the body. I decided to revisit early the next morning on the off chance that I might get a photo of coyotes feeding on the body.
Approaching the site quietly and from a direction that would give me a view from a reasonable distance, I was disappointed to see nothing but crows around the buck. They flapped away with protesting squawks as I approached to see what, if anything, had happened to the carcass. It looked unchanged, except for a cloud of flies around the mouth. I debated whether to take the buck's antlers as a show-and-tell trophy for my kids but decided that might be too grisly.
Feeling equal parts foolish and ghoulish, I left. But I couldn't stay away. Two mornings later I was back, armed with a quasi-scientific resolve to see nature take its funereal course. This time I was greeted by a cacophony of squeals, yips and snarls. I froze in my tracks as a pair of foxes burst out of the trees near the body.
The larger of the two, resplendent in a golden-red coat, chased down the other, which stopped at the river and bared its fangs. The smaller fox was an adolescent, born that year. And judging by its shabby, dull fur, was not having any easy time of it. Most young predators don't live to see their first birthday, as they must compete with their own kind in addition to learning to hunt by themselves.
The adult aggressor eyed the youngster in a superior way before sauntering back toward the buck. I cleared my throat, and both animals took off. The carcass, when I got to it, was beginning to smell a bit. A thin layer of fallen leaves covered all but the hindquarters the fox had been gnawing on.
The soft underbelly now had a rip allowing the fox to feast on the nutritionally rich internal organs. The crows had been there, too, at work on the eyes and through them to the brain. Out of sight, the eggs of flies would soon be hatching out into maggots that would be racing against time to mature before other carrion eaters devoured the carcass, and them with it.
I returned in a week to find the spot bare where the carcass had been lying. My first thought was that someone had moved it, but a noisy flock of crows 30 yards away indicated otherwise. It was then that I noticed bits of the bucks' hair snagged on bushes, pieces of flesh on the ground.
And there -- the carcass beside a log. Paw prints on some nearby muddy ground revealed that coyotes had dragged the buck to this new resting spot. They had consumed both hind quarters and cleaned out the buck's innards.
In the fall, the Rouge becomes littered with dead salmon. The coyotes patrol the river, feasting on the remains. Lying so close to the river, the rank smell of the carcass must have been detected. As I walked away from the buck, I saw the body of the young fox that had been previously driven off by its elder. Its head was bent completely back and puncture wounds dotted its neck. It was easy to guess what had happened. The starving fox had stayed too long at the body and been caught by a coyote. The coyote, like most other predators, will happily kill smaller predators to eliminate the competition.
By my visit the next week, the buck had been reduced to a skeletal shell of its former self. The ground and surrounding bushes were literally festooned with bits of hair. What little flesh remained was being methodically removed by crows and blue jays. Another incidental victim had followed the young fox -- a weasel, whose neatly severed head lay at the foot of a tree not 10 feet from the carcass. The decapitation was a giveaway that a great horned owl had nabbed the weasel while it nosed around the bones.
I didn't return to the site again until after the first snowfall. I wasn't expecting to find any activity around the bones, but the spot where the body had lain now seemed to be the focus of substantial animal traffic. Tracks radiated out in all directions from the few remaining bones. Predators large and small had had made one or more meals from the carcass, and it seemed they couldn't break themselves of the habit of checking out one of their favourite restaurants. Small, feathery paw prints showed that even rodents had been nibbling for the calcium and minerals the buck's bones provided.
By the time of my last visit in late winter, only the skull was left. In less than six months the buck had been almost entirely absorbed by the animals of the Rouge. Even microscopic creatures in the soil would have benefited from the buck's blood seeping into the ground.
By providing predators with dozens of solid meals, the buck had saved the lives of countless other creatures, including mice, voles and rabbits. The hair of the deer was now lining the dens of mice and would later find its way into birds' nests in the spring.
In nature, death marks the beginning of a chain reaction.