Bernd Heinrich's Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death is a moving exploration of the life and death cycles of the animal kingdom, and how the two cycles intersect. Here, Heinrich details some amazing details of the animal life cycle, including the connection between a bird's death and a beetle's mating ritual, and what happens to a Blue whale's body when it dies.
One night during a long cold rain, a Song sparrow was incubating on its nest, situated on the ground. I checked the nest in the morning and found the bird dead on its four brown-spotted eggs. Within an hour or two it must have wafted some kind of an odor, because an orange and black beetle, the Burying beetle Nicrophorus tomentosis, had come flying in, zigzagging back and forth and looking and sounding like a bumblebee. The beetle must have been attracted by scent, because the beetle came from far away and the sparrow was almost invisible under the stems of overhanging dead grass.
After detecting the scent, the resting beetle had shivered with its flight muscles, warmed up, and then flew upwind and eventually zeroed in on the bird in the bush. It then stood with its tail-end up to release a come-hither scent from a gland near its anus. This scent, too, wafted on the wind, and it attracted another beetle of the opposite sex. The pair then moved the bird carcass by crawling under it and, with their backs resting on the ground and their legs moving it rather than themselves, they coordinated and brought the sparrow to a place where the soil was soft. They buried it there, mated, laid eggs and attended them until they hatched. They then fed their larvae, converting the one sparrow into a dozen beetles.
A giraffe in Africa is sick, and a pride of lions notices. One or two soon hold it, and another clamps down on its wind-pipe. In minutes the animal is dead. They rip into its belly. Hyenas smell blood, come running in and open it up some more. One of the thousands of vultures soaring like specks in the sky sees the drama below and knows what’s up. It begins its descent, and other vultures a few miles distant see it, and head in the same direction, and the ones beyond see, too, and so one vulture “communicates” to the next in a long chain that stretches for a hundred miles. They converge from all directions and gather in the acacia trees, waiting for the lions, hyenas and jackals to take their noon fiesta so they can come barreling down to clean up the rest. They leave the bones for the hyena.
The bigger the carcass, the larger some undertakers can become. In the days of the giant dinosaurs, Quetzalcoatlus soared with 45 foot wingspread, and had to fly far to find an Apatosaur. Now the giants live in the seas, and the Blue whale, the largest animal that ever lived on planet earth, supports its bulk of up to 150 tons on the waters of the deep ocean for all of its life, except when it exhales to dive and catch giant squid in the cold pitch-dark depths. After a century or two the Blue weakens. A pod of Orcas rip it open. Lungs deflated, it sinks and sharks feed. Into the abyss it drifts. Miles down it finds the ocean floor where a strange assemblage of animals are adapted to live off such bonanzas. They work in teams, one strange crew after another, until years later the whale is hundreds of thousands of them. Such deaths had not been witnessed by humans until recent times; we have not had the ability to enter and look into that nether-world. But here we see death routinely. The most recently witnessed death for me was a raven's last week.
Ravens are the paragons of flight- beautiful to behold. They are the northern winter carcass specialists, and large carcasses tend to be few, far between, and those used by ravens are often quickly buried under snow; a raven must be able, willing and perhaps eager to fly long distances routinely. This raven was an old one, and it could no longer fly. A neighbor caught it by hand and brought it to me wrapped in his coat. Ravens in Maine are very wild and shy, but this one looked me directly in the eye and showed no fear. I took it from Ken’s coat and held it in my hands. It stayed calm, and minutes later took some of my freshly fried chicken from my hand. I put leaves on my floor and sat on a bench by it to talk to it and feed it more tidbits. After I had visited with it five times a day, it rested on the leaves under the bench at night, and there it was dead two days later. I dug a shallow hole and buried it in in the soil. It is now becoming soil, which will grow the flowers that my favorite bees- the bumblebees- will pollinate, and it will grow the bushes where the Chestnut-sided warblers who live here nest.
Deaths often involve strange tales, but the strangest tale I have ever heard, and on occasion witnessed, is one where the practically dead is kept suffering for as long as is possible. Then, when it has agonized for perhaps months and resources, means and efforts have been exhausted to keep it alive, the inevitable for some reason still happens. The victim’s associates then see to it that its blood is drained out, that it is injected to be saturated with highly toxic-to-life chemicals, and is made to look like it is sleeping. A crowd then gathers to examine it and hear someone say that it will now live forever somewhere else, in a better place. It is then sealed into an airtight box made of ancient trees from far away where giant Harpy eagles still nest. That box is sealed into another box made from metal that was dug from the ground by scraping a mountain with bulldozers. Other toxic chemicals then leached into streams, killed insects and then trout. Otters starved. This complex process was done because it was deemed necessary, respectful and good. But the strangest part is that the participants firmly believed it was done of reverence for life.