Killing time before church Sunday morning, Frances and Jimmy Holmes walked outside their rural Peoria home and spotted white tufts sprouting from a nearby field. "We thought they were birds," said Frances, 8. But as she and her 10-year-old brother walked out to investigate, they discovered a gruesome sight: eight dead deer, apparently felled all at once - probably by lightning. Later, not far off, they found another lifeless deer.
Killing time before church Sunday morning, Frances and Jimmy Holmes walked outside their rural Peoria home and spotted white tufts sprouting from a nearby field.
"We thought they were birds," said Frances, 8.
But as she and her 10-year-old brother walked out to investigate, they discovered a gruesome sight: eight dead deer, apparently felled all at once - probably by lightning. Later, not far off, they found another lifeless deer.
The siblings looked over the rotting corpses under Tuesday morning's dreary sky. Wet, cold rain pelted the animals, stretched out in hues of brown, gray and white in the middle of a crop field.
Frances said softly, "It's just sad, nine deer lost."
It's also very unusual, according to animal experts.
"Every year, you hear about a farmer losing a cow to lightning," says Lauren Malmberg, director of the Peoria Animal Welfare Society. "And it happens sometimes to one deer. But I've never heard of more than one."
In the wee hours of Sunday, rain fell on and around Mount Carmel Way, a thin ribbon of pavement that stretches off Southport Road, northwest of Peoria city limits. Mount Carmel Way pushes past a handful of dwellings before ending at a bean and corn field owned by Steve and Kate Smart.
The neighboring Holmes children say they like to watch deer that often poke out of nearby woods in search of food.
"They get into our yard and sometimes get into our garden," Frances says. "But otherwise they're nice to look at."
The siblings, along with their mother, Chris Holmes, awoke around 4:30 a.m. Sunday at the sound of a massive BOOM.
Chris Holmes, 41, says, "I'd never heard thunder that loud."
Yet other than that one crash, they noticed no other thunder, nor saw any lightning. Still, just one bolt can spark serious carnage.
Dan Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Lincoln, said cloud-to-ground strikes had been reported in the area early Sunday. Likely, the deer were feeding together on wet ground and got zapped by the same bolt of lightning - one of which can carry more than 100 million volts.
Eight of the deer - all felled within a 12-square-yard area - likely died immediately of electrocution, Smith said. The other animal, found about 100 yards away, might have been grazing slightly away from the herd when the lightning hit. Its injuries might have been slightly less severe, allowing it to stagger away before falling dead, Smith said.
Tuesday morning, turkey vultures pecked at the carcasses before flying away at the sound of the approaching Holmes children.
What will become of the deer?
The owners of the field have been out of the country and will not return until Friday, according to a house-sitting relative.
Meanwhile, PAWS does not typically handle dead animals on private property. Moreover, director Malmberg said that each of the deer is too big to fit into the PAWS incinerator, and their number is too many to cram into the shelter's Dumpster.
When PAWS euthanizes injured deer, it immediately alerts Wildlife Prairie State Park, which butchers the animals to feed to the park's cougars and wolves. However, after two days of rotting, the deer produce toxins that can be unhealthy for the park's animals, says Linda Prescott, the park's general manager. Plus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forbids the park from using rotting animal flesh as animal chow.
But Prescott says nature might dispose of the deer, thanks to coyotes, turkey vultures, crows and "whatever else has the munchies."
"They'll probably have them cleaned up in less than a week," Prescott says. "Then it'll be down to just a skeleton."
That's possible, says Mike Wefer, a biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. But with that amount of flesh, the carcasses could start to stink before predators have their fill. Meantime, the agency does not handle dead wildlife on private grounds.
"We don't have a road kill squad that could go in and take them out," Wefer says.
He says the property owner could bury the deer: "Just let them go back to the circle of life."
However, with the ground so wet, it could be days before a tractor could get into the field. Meanwhile, the animals will decompose further.
"There could be a good smell," Wefer says.
Phil Luciano can be reached at email@example.com or (309) 686-3155.