DEAR JOAN: Last weekend we saw a cottontail scampering around our backyard. He disappeared, we thought, under the fence.
This morning we found the head of a cottontail on a step in the backyard just five feet from the door into our family room. We didn't hear any disturbance last night while we slept. We have not found any other evidence -- just a head -- no body, no tufts of fur, no blood, no obvious disturbance in the landscaping. All the gates were locked.
We don't have a cat or dog. Our neighbor has a cat, but I cannot remember the last time it was in our backyard. There are bobcats and coyotes occasionally -- we live next to the water district in Almaden Valley. We do have skunks that go along the side of the house and across our yard to the neighbors.
Any idea what might have happened, or what might be prowling around in our yard?
DEAR GRETCHEN: My vote goes to a great horned owl. They have been called the most efficient killing machines around, able to spot their prey and swoop silently down on them, catching the unsuspecting creature in strong talons.
Smaller animals are swallowed whole, but larger prey, such as a cottontail rabbit, would be torn into owl-sized bites.
Great horned owls rarely eat their prey on the ground as it makes them too vulnerable, so the owl may have caught the rabbit in your yard, flown into a tree in your yard and began to feast.
Rabbit heads don't have a lot of meat, so the owl may have decided not to bother with it and dropped it to the ground, where it landed or rolled onto your porch.
A coyote would have gobbled down the rabbit pretty quickly, leaving nothing behind. It also isn't likely to dine near your back door. A dog may have killed the rabbit and eaten part of it, but it likely would have taken the kill home to show off the prize.
I doubt a cat could have killed a cottontail, but it may have found part of the body and left it on your doorstep. A fox or raccoon may also be to blame for the abandoned head.
DEAR JOAN: Recently we have found dead birds on our property, one in the backyard and the most recent on the sidewalk outside our home.
I called the Contra Costa Mosquito Control number and spoke to one of the ladies there. She said the bird I described sounded like a mockingbird and they only tracked ravens and crows. She suggested we just dispose of it in the garbage.
Because we do not have mosquitoes in our yard, she didn't think that West Nile virus was what was killed these birds. She said it could be that neighbors are putting out rat poison and that the birds were possibly ingesting it, which I guess could happen.
Do you have any other ideas as to what could be killing these birds, as it's kind of creepy when you go outside and find them dead?
DEAR DONNA: Any number of things may have killed the birds, but it is unusual to have two deaths so close together. It's likely too late now to find out what did kill them, but you can report the deaths -- and any others -- to the California Department of Health at 877-968-2473 or http://westnile.ca.gov.
If they believe a bird is in good condition for testing, they'll make arrangements to pick it up. Otherwise, you are instructed on how to dispose of it in the garbage. Even if it's not tested, the state uses this information to look for patterns and problems.
Joan Morris' column runs five days a week in print and online. Contact her at email@example.com; or 1700 Cavallo Road, Antioch, CA 94509.