By: Dr. Dave Samuel

Those who do not appreciate hunting often condemn bowhunters because they feel that lots of deer are wounded, and left to die in the wild. While it is true that a minimal amount of wounding loss does occur, the Camp Ripley bow wounding study (readily acknowledged as the most complete and accurate bow wounding study ever done) showed that such losses were very low

Of course there are huge numbers of car wounding losses, where a deer gets hit, struggles off the road into the adjacent area, and lives for a period of time before dying. No cry to eliminate autos. Deer get caught in fences. Some die there, some escape, but almost certainly some suffer leg injuries and go off to die at some later date.

Mammal predator-prey attacks also lead to wounding losses. As a percentage, such amounts are unknown, but they definitely occur. Rabbits attacked by owls can and do, escape. Their wounds may be superficial, or they may be mortal. How long do those rabbits lay in holes before they die? We will never know the answer to that question. It happens.

A barred owl visited this gut pile on several occasions.

The grim truth though, is that very little in nature goes to waste. Things eat things. Lots of things eat lots of things. We do, bears do, cats do, coyotes do, hawks do, snakes do, etc. Lots of things eat other living and dead things to survive.

This immature bald eagle visited the deer remains. We also know that golden eagles commonly overwinter in West Virginia and most certainly visit deer gut piles.

A few days ago I got this interesting email from two local West Virginia hunters, Rich Kenyon and Dave Chidester. They were curious as to what happened to the piles of eviscerated innards left in the woods by hunters. This isn’t an original idea. Lots of hunters have done this and are doing this now.

A deer gut pile probably weighs about 30 pounds, and there are hundreds of thousands of them left in the woods after deer seasons. For example, the deer harvest in Pennsylvania is approximately 250,000 a year, Ohio 220,000, Michigan 420,000, etc., etc. We’re talking many millions, of animal remains, left in the woods after deer seasons end.

Red-tailed hawks would be common visitors to gut piles.

The question then is what happens to all the “prey.” Does it all just rot, decompose, disappear?
Certainly some just decomposes and provides food for maggots, various beetles, etc. But based on the trail cam pictures that Rich and Dave emailed me, a lot of those innards is consumed by a number of species of mammals and birds. They’ve put cameras over gut piles for five years and here is what they have found.

The stomach, liver, lungs, intestines, etc., at a deer gut pile provides food for many small birds as well as eagles (they got images of an immature bald eagle), crows, barred owls, raccoons, fisher, gray and red fox, coyotes, and bobcats. They didn’t get any bear photos, but most certainly bears will eat such remains before and after their winter sleep.

This fox works a gut pile.

Interesting to me was the fact that these remains still provide food for animals three months or more after the hunting season. And this is at a time when the winter snows and cold are hard on animals. In other words, for many critters, deer gut piles are an important source of food. One of the photos they sent me had whitetails near the remains. I couldn’t tell if the deer consumed any of the pile, but I found a recent camera study done by a wildlife biologist that showed that deer will consume meat. They had volunteers put cameras out in 19 states over a three-year period. These cameras were placed over dead rabbits, birds, and other wildlife species, as well as deer gut piles. They noted that sometimes the deer just looked at the pile, but some also consumed parts of it. Deer apparently will eat a little meat now and again.

As does this raccoon.

Foxes, coyotes, raccoons, bobcats, opossum and other species all utilize deer remains left after hunting season.

I’m sure that Rich and Dave put out their cameras as a hobby, to keep busy and to get outdoors in the winter. But at the same time, they’ve learned some interesting details on what happens to those gut piles that we leave in the woods every fall. Predators and non predators come there to eat.

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