5 Horrors of Nature Happening In Your Backyard (Right Now)
By now, we all know that nature is a horrific hellscape of Darwinian terrors. But while we like to think all of that gruesomeness happens somewhere far away in the deepest wilderness, there are actually plenty of gross and terrible horrors occurring right in your very backyard. And sometimes it's committed by the adorable critters you'd least expect.
Squirrels Are Bloodthirsty Killers
While cartoons may have you believe that squirrels live solely off of acorns and the morning dew they gather in cute little hats made from said acorns, these rodents are just as omnivorous as their less-fluffy cousins. So given half a chance, a squirrel will jump on the opportunity to savor all the salty and fatty goodness that only a fresh kill can provide. Like this pigeon, conveniently ripped open by a passing car for easy access to the tastiest giblets:
And if there isn't any fresh roadkill around, squirrels don't mind doing the killing themselves. They're not very good hunters, though, so they prefer to wait until birds leave their nests, climb up in there, and eat the chicks alive.
It gets darker. Squirrels will also gladly gobble up their own evolutionary relatives, nibbling on dead (or dying) mice like they're cracking into a particularly hairy nut. In fact, some species of squirrels are straight-up cannibals. Which species of squirrel are those? Pretty much all of them.
In the Yukon, red squirrels can predict which years are "mast" years -- ones that will net them plenty of pine seeds. But in those years, the male squirrels don't get fat. They get even. Ignoring the food laying on the ground, they'll attack the nests of other squirrels and eat their young, knowing full well that there's enough food around that the females will agree to have a second litter with the dude who just killed her first family. Isn't nature swell?
Great Tits Crack Open Skulls And Eat Brains
We all know that birds are basically tiny dinosaurs, but it's hard to see the average backyard sparrow sharing any DNA with the most brutal prehistoric killers. But one of those little feathered friends outside of your window isn't like the others, and has a thirst for blood that can match that of any raptor.
Tits (don't giggle, save it for later) can be found thriving in cities and towns all over the world. That's because these yellow-breasted cuties are pretty clever, especially when they're hungry. In the 1940s, people discovered that British tits had learned to peck the caps off of milk bottles left on doorsteps. And today the Hungarian tit has developed a similar little trick, only instead of bottle caps, it's bats, and instead of delicious milk, it's bat brains.
In the '90s, German scientists observed that Hungarian great tits (now you can giggle) had adapted to the long snowy winters by heading into caves. There they found an ample and untouched food source: hibernating pipistrelle bats. So they started eating them. More specifically, they started pecking open the bats' skulls and munching on their brains while the bats were still alive.
The birds did stop slaughtering pipistrelles when scientists offered them sunflower seeds and bacon scraps. So it was only a desperate survival thing, right? Well no, great tits are genuine demon spawn. Aside from going all Walking Dead on bat brains, they also have a long, terrible history of murdering sparrows.
Why? Sometimes they smash in innocent birds' skulls to steal their nesting sites. Other times it's just to get rid of the competition, killing their rivals with a single beak blow through the back of the head, gangland-execution-style. They also kill any birds they find caught in traps or cages, because, well ... they're psychotic, OK?
Deer Love To Eat Corpses
Buckle up for this one. Deer looooove the taste of flesh -- especially human.
Deer are among the first animals you'll find licking up the remains (especially the entrails) of rotting animals. And what we would call bird nests, they call a cheap and easy buffet, gobbling up baby birds like the freshest of nuggets. If they can get their dirty hooves on it, deer will dine on just about any corpse in any state of decay. And that apparently includes humans. While recording the behavior of known scavengers, researchers at a body farm in Texas were surprised to see their favorite Disney protagonists wander into a human corpse pile and start chewing on bones like they were saltwater taffy.
But why? Dear god, why?
Well, bones are a good source of phosphorous, something herbivores have a hard time getting elsewhere. One problem: Carrion often carries botulism, something only real scavengers have developed defense mechanisms against. That'll kill the deer, but also, say, whatever or whomever shoots and eats that deer. Which, to their credit, creates more human corpses for them to chew on. Well played, deer.
There Are "Snakes" Made Out Of Larvae
When you see a snake in the grass, the best-case scenario is that it is in fact a snake. Because it could also be these eldritch nightmares:
These Lovecraftian spaghetti monsters are fungus gnat larvae, the baby form of the adult fungus gnats, one of God's many filler species.
When they are in their larval form, baby gnats' only life goals are to eat dead vegetation and eventually be eaten themselves by prettier, more important animals. But when it becomes time to pupate and turn into the world's most disgusting popcorn kernels, gnat larvae will mass migrate to the surface, bunching up into these 2-6-inch long, 2-inch wide Cronenbergian monsters, leaving a trail of half-digested decaying plant matter across your backyard. But there is a silver lining: After a little while, they pupate and explode into swarms of annoying gnats. It's a ... relative silver lining.
Crows Are Nasty Necrophiliacs
Corvid researcher Kaeli Swift has an interesting career. For years, she placed taxidermied crow cadavers in the wild and studied the responses of their living compatriots. The research has produced some neat findings, such as how crows are clever enough to interpret dead crows as a sign of danger if they're in predator-heavy areas. But the most interesting discovery happened in 2015, when Swift decided to see what happened if she placed a dead crow on the ground in a completely predator-free environment. What was first a warning of danger become a disturbing invitation for some no-strings-attached necrophilia.
In 24 percent of cases, the crows poked or attacked the dead body. But an especially freaky 4 percent attempted copulation, in some cases even full-on orgies. To make sure this wasn't some freak occurrence, Swift also mounted a taxidermied pigeon as well -- which was also swiftly mounted by a crow.
While Swift observed dozens of these boning birds, this is the first time any ornithologist has noticed this necrophiliac niche in corvid sexuality. Disappointingly for anyone hoping for a witchy explanation, the reason is probably plain old hormones. According to Dr. Kevin McGowan, a professor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the cause of this ghoulish groping is simply that the study took place during mating season. Bird gonads wax and wane with the seasons, shrinking or expanding to meet boning demand. During the breeding season, a crow's brain is so intoxicated with a chemical cocktail of sex hormones that they're unable to restrain themselves in the presence of a bootylicious mate. Even if they're dead, apparently.
This is the kind of stuff they just don't show you on Planet Earth, but it's still worth checking out.
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