AMBER LOVE 03-JAN-2022 This work is supported by the generous backers who adore my cat stories at Patreon.com/amberunmasked and they also get first access to what’s happening with my books and podcast.
Where We Left Off:
In the last case file, we examined the string of home invasions by rodents that put Gus and Oliver to the test of their mousing skills.
Fur You I Die:
Though this is our first case file for the new calendar year (remember when we were so sure 2021 had to be better than 2020?), our investigation began the day before American Thanksgiving. Gus led me to the northern border not far from Fort Winchester. He paused to use his Super Smeller in a spot where there were brown oak leaves on the ground.
That border is generally soggier than other areas and we frequently can find tracks of visitors who have passed through the yard. On this occasion, it wasn’t a foot imprint that caught Gus’ attention. To be honest, he wasn’t interested for very long. Once I caught up, he was ready to turn the crime scene over to me.
I squatted and moved the leaves around to uncover tufts of soft hair. They have a gradient in coloring from grey to rusty-brown. There was no blood evidence or other gross factors like icky soft tissue. This fur had been pulled out cleanly from a body and we had to identify the victim.
It’s been a troubling year in that we haven’t seen many squirrels. This evidence could lead to answering why that is. It’s squirrel fur, eastern grey. If we narrow our list of known squirrels and previously considered friends of the detective agency, it’s a very short list. Two of the squirrels of the northern woodland neighbor were turned into squirrelpyres (vampyr), Synthia Sciurus and Theo Sciurus. Baroness Elspet-Gray was identified as deceased earlier in 2021. Excluding the Leverage squirrels, that left one squirrel friend on our list: Lady Effie Gray Millais.
Weeks later in December, we discovered even more evidence that would crack this case wide open. Before we get there, let’s look at the information we had verified: the fur was confirmed to be Sciurus carolinensis. These squirrels can come in different colors including the rare all black variety which has not been seen in our neighborhood, yet the Butler has seen them in his town. There’s been a decrease in squirrel sightings and interactions. Something must be keeping them away.
Victim 2 or more?
On December 14, 2021, we found an owl pellet. That’s the fur and bones and whatever else an owl can’t digest coughed up and resembling a hairball. Owl pellets can also be mistaken for bezoars of other animals which was something we investigated once during werewolf activity. We found two more owl pellets that week. They were bagged up and taken home to dry out before pulling them apart.
“This shirt is dry clean only, which means… it’s dirty.” — Mitch Hedberg
I learned about owl pellets from an episode of Dirty Jobs (Season 2 episode 3) where Mike Rowe and crew interviewed a man who had barns and silos. Owls lived happily in these structures and the man would collect owl pellets and package them for sale as science kits for classrooms. There are videos by teachers on YouTube about this lab dissection for science classes.
I opened up the first pellet and all I found were two claws. They’re shaped and colored just like cat claws only much smaller. They’re approximately 2mm in length. I bagged them so they wouldn’t get lost.
The next opportunity I had to dissect the owl pellets, I was able to find more signs of what was eaten by the owl. There were more claws, an unidentified bone, small debris, and a twig — I couldn’t tell what it was without magnification. I placed the possible evidence in a small cup of hydrogen peroxide. There’s one more large pellet to dissect.
As more evidence is uncovered and cleaned, we’ll see if there’s any way to be sure that this was a squirrel. Then we have to figure out if it was merely an act of instinct and survival or if the owl murdered Lady Effie — but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The humans here make comments sometimes about Oliver Winchester being slower than Gus. I think he’s cautious and quite smart. He gets Gus to do all the physical labor. Ollie reminded me to stop jumping to conclusions. I did anyway.
Rodents have been tearing up the lawn so we know they are active in the backyard. I don’t know if owls would rip a critter from the ground the way Gus does. The Cook is the only human to have seen an owl on the ground. She was dumbfounded by the size of the creature. It was dark, so she didn’t get a good look at it. The rest of us have only heard the owls.
We get daily visits from at least one vulture. Sometimes as many as five or six circle above. I would be interested to see a size comparison of a Turkey Vulture to a Great Horned Owl. If you’re interested in unique birds that are difficult to see up close, follow pythonpaige on Instagram. She’s a falconer. Whoever does her photography is incredible at capturing clear, detailed images of animals with her.
I made a video of the final pellet dissection. Don’t judge my extremely frumpy appearance. I am next level frumpy by now. If I lived outdoors, I’d look like a wild woman of the woods but I need indoor plumbing and TV. I did not have the energy to get camera-ready. These days I just don’t. Even with my eyes barely open, my body hunched in exhaustion, and my hair in clips, I love being on camera. I just look terrible now unlike the good ol’ days of when I started the YouTube channel. Spoiler alert for unattractiveness.
I have been leaving peanuts at the base of the hydra-like tree (picture King Ghidorah but with more necks and heads) next to Fort Winchester to try and get the attention of squirrels. The thing is, the birds know me and Gus and when they see us, they expect those peanuts. I have no idea if squirrels have gotten any of them. That means, I have not seen Lady Effie in a long time and I had the feeling the tufts of fur had been hers.
Unfortunately, my favorite source for bone identification, boneid.net, does not have any small rodents. The only rodent on their database list is beaver. There’s great information and photos on a UK site, but their animals tend to be slightly varied from ours. I was discouraged about ever finding an identification of these bones and fur.
After days cleaning and examining the bones and comparing them to charts, I began to wonder if I was entirely off the mark. Was the fur a red herring this whole time? Do owls vomit multiple animal parts in one pellet? Seriously, what’s with all the fur?
Prey of Birds:
The small size of the bones had me focused on voles and other tiny rodent species. Then I opened up a real can of worms and started to look at the charts for bird bones. I had been focusing most of my attention on the long bones, because the fragment (noted as 2 in the photo) wasn’t enough for me to figure out if it was a skull or a pelvis while I had been assuming it was a mammal. The lightbulb went off inside my head when I finally searched bird pelvis photos. Most are large species like pelicans so they don’t resemble what I have. The epiphany hit me when I saw some fossil digital illustrations which made all the difference.
The holes on either side of the ridge first had me thinking, what kind of eyeball are those? The answer is none. It’s got to be a fragment of a pelvis. The ridge is the dorsal iliac crest and the “holes” are foramen. Because it’s such a small fragment, I wasn’t visualizing the big picture!
Then my brain went into — let’s face it, I don’t have overdrive so, just — drive.
Another victim or the same one? Is this a serial killer?
Over in Gnome Grove, Gus and I found a plethora of small feathers at a crime scene. We never connected the three cases! The users of iNaturalist identified the feathers as brown thrushes or nightingale thrushes. They’re pretty brown and beige feathers and all the small ones are black and white or spotted with brown. I’m not entirely convinced that ID is accurate because of the colors, but it might be. Photos don’t show the wings or tails opened up so they tend to look solid colored in search photos.
At last, I took all my research back to Oliver who said he agrees with my theory that there are different victims. The fur belonging to a small grey critter like a meadow vole; and the bones and claws belonging to a small bird.
Case Status: Closed
Since the owl pellet examinations, I ordered two-part clear cast resin, pigments, and more molds. I think I’ll try to cast the owl evidence in the molds I bought many years ago and never used (I had intended to make an Infinity Gem gauntlet before the movies were out). I’m always filled with great ideas, but then afraid to spend the money on expensive raw materials — This was also long before resin was a popular craft so I would have ordered directly from Smooth-On and spent three times as much. Sometimes procrastination and fear of failure work out so that you reach the time when prices come down and materials are commercially marketed to YouTubers allowing the learning curve mistakes to cost a lot less for beginners.