Last October, for the first time in the history of the state, Kansas received documented proof – in the form of a deer hunter’s photograph – of a mountain lion population. To those throughout the state who’ve lived in rural areas most of our lives, this came as no surprise.
When I was a boy, Momma always spoke of the shrill, blood-curdling screams she heard in the woods south of our farm house, and without a doubt she attributed the sounds to this secretive creature. I have never seen or heard one, but stories from farm folk in middle America were all the evidence I ever really needed (and the documented populations in all states surrounding Kansas helped, too).
No matter where you live in North America, or in the world, for that matter, it’s useful and gratifying to know what critters are hanging around your property. If you’re not paying attention to the various forms of wildlife signs that animals leave, you should start. These signs indicate where and when to head out with the camera, what is helping itself to the beans in the garden, and what is leaving all of those vague footprints down by the creek where your children play.
Look to the food source
Paul Rezendes, author of Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign, among other books, a freelance nature stock photographer and one of North America’s leading animal tracking experts, looks to what vegetation is or isn’t present as one of the first indicators of herbivores (which naturally leads to carnivorous species).
He illustrates the point by using as an example one predominant wildlife fixture, the whitetail deer. Rezendes can give a ballpark figure for the number of whitetail deer per square mile in his native Northeast, just by spending some time in the woods and looking at the abundance of American yew shrubs and sprouts, sprouting oak and red maple, and elderberry, among other things.
“You don’t need to see one track, you don’t need to see one deer-dropping cluster,” Rezendes says, “all you need to do is look at the vegetation.”
Even a small number of deer, say five deer per square mile, will impact the American yew, so if you see a bunch that hasn’t been grazed at all in the Northeast, the deer population is low. At about 20 deer per square mile, Rezendes says, American yew probably won’t grow, but if it does, it will be small, stubbly sprouts. At even higher densities you’ll find significant impacts on the sprouting of oaks, red maple and, at even higher densities, on hemlock.
Similarly, an indication of the Snowshoe Hare population in the Northeast is the abundance of high-bush blueberry. Other animals can be roughly quantified the same way, although you need to take into consideration your region and what the animal eats. This is trickier with an animal like the black bear, since it is omnivorous and will shift its eating habits depending on the abundance of certain plants throughout the year.
To be sure the suspected species is doing the munching, try this tip. Look closely at exactly how the plant is grazed, particularly if you think deer are the likely culprits. They don’t have upper incisors, only lower ones, so when deer browse, they leave a ragged edge, a rough snip, almost as if the shrub or sprout was broken off rather than clipped. With hare, woodchuck and other rodents, having both sets of incisors means the clipping will be clean, almost like a cut with pruning shears at about a 45-degree angle.
Keep this in mind when trying to determine what pesky animal is making off with all of the harvest in your garden, too.
While you might not want to discuss it over dinner, scat – excrement left behind by animals – is one of the more important wildlife signs. Its size, shape and consistency can tell you an incredible amount.
The most obvious thing scat tells you is what the animal has been eating, and that’s incredibly useful with herbivores. You can identify the main food source in your region by looking at scat. During summer months, herbivores consume soft vegetation, but in the fall they shift to more nuts, seeds and fruit, then woody shrubs and sprouts in winter. The hardness of their droppings follows this pattern. For shape distinction, see “Deciphering Scat” below.
Naturally, animals defecate in areas where they feel comfortable, so if scat is found in the forest, a den or a similar rest area may be nearby.
Along game trails – a path worn down by wildlife, which serves as the super highway of the woods – is another good place to look, especially when it comes to wolves and, particularly, coyotes and foxes. The
intersection of game trails is a heavy-traffic area, much like the junction of a brook and the pond or other water body it empties into (for beavers and otters), so animals will not only leave scat at these places, they will make scratches and scrapes and leave scent from both their paws and anal glands.
These scents are a complex language that humans will never fully understand, but it’s believed they identify the individual within a species and give clues like what food is in the area or when an animal is ready to procreate.
All of these signs require a little more keen observation than, and are often overshadowed by, the most obvious animal sign of all, the footprint. Animal tracks blanket the landscape, but they are most commonly and easily identifiable in softer ground – near ponds and streams. The water source on your property, if you have one, is a great place to start looking for tracks, since all animals are likely to visit that source at some point.
Identification of tracks takes time, and it’s admittedly tough to tell the difference between a coyote and a domestic dog, a bobcat and domestic cat, and so on, but there are a few tricks that help.
The most basic distinction to be made is between canines and felines. Cats have retractable claws, so if claws are present you’re likely dealing with a member of the canine family. The exception would be if the cat is running and hunting, but that’s unlikely if you’re looking around a water source.
For a lot of other species, some time spent studying a field guide – the Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks is one that is widely used – will have you recognizing the heel pad fatness in a porcupine that
indicates it’s not a raccoon, and so forth.
Within the feline and canine families, though, the toughest distinctions occur among members. Size definitely matters.
Marion Larson, information and education biologist in the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, says getting a good measurement is important to determining species, and it turns out that people aren’t that good at measuring.
In her department, Larson receives num-erous e-mails and phone calls from people trying to determine a species based on tracks. The digital age has ushered in a convenient, instant way for people to check with a biologist using digital cameras and e-mail. But an accurate measurement is still needed.
“Put something next to the print that is familiar in size, whether it’s a dollar bill or a quarter or something like that,” Larson says. “A bobcat print and a cat print, except for size, are going to look fairly similar.”
Measure in between tracks as well, from the rear of one foot to the rear of the same foot on the next stride.
Another clue is looking at track pattern. Do you have a diagonal walker like a deer, a bounding animal like a ferret, a galloper like a rabbit or a pacer like a skunk?
Connecting with the wild
All these signs, clues really, will help you connect with wildlife, or if your goal is to avoid an encounter, a little observation will help you know what’s going on around you and your property.
Rezendes told me a story from days gone by when he owned and operated a tracking school. He and a group of trackers were out following a bobcat. They followed the bobcat for two days, sleeping out in the snow and basically walking a couple of days in the footprints of a bobcat.
They’d reached a point where the bobcat knew it was being tracked and was being more evasive, so Rezendes decided to stop; when a bobcat knows it’s being tracked, natural behavior can’t really be observed.
A couple of the younger trackers insisted on continuing, so Rezendes and another man held back and waited while communicating with the group via 2-way radio. At one point, when the persistent trackers were stumped, they radioed back to Rezendes. About that time, here came the bobcat, having doubled back on its own tracks and those of the trackers, until it was face to face with Rezendes, caught red-handed trying to throw off its pursuers.
Wildlife is capable of amazing perception and behavior, and being in tune with that ability is an essential part to living a fulfilling life in the country.
When the workday is done, Assistant Editor Caleb Regan often follows sign to his favorite tree stand where he can observe tracks, scat and scrapes in the making.