Be a Winter Animal Detective–tracks & scat clues can tell you a lot!

Just last week around nightfall, Joan heard a commotion outside the back of her house.  When she went to investigate there was little Etta near the stone wall that opens to Roundfield and on each side of her were two very large animals that looked like wolves.  Joan ran out and got Etta and though the animals didn’t seem that afraid of her they eventually backed off and Etta was safe.

I know we’re not supposed have wolves around here but after looking up a few photos online Joan is sure they weren’t coyotes or dogs (she said they looked exactly like the photo here).  Michele McCarthy, who works at the Barn, said her husband had also seen animals that looked like wolves recently.  So, of course, that gets you to thinking about just what’s out there in your yard or field at night.

One of the best ways to find out is through the clues animals leave behind…tracks and scat.

Especially now when there is snow on the ground  it’s easy and surprising to see just how much activity is going on out there.   Whether you are looking for tracks or scat the best way to identify them is by using a published field guide.  There are many great guides to choose from so find the one that fits your needs.  Peterson’s “Field Guide to Animal Tracks” is very comprehsive.   Click the image to the right for a quick reference track guide from MassWildlife.

With guide in hand start by locating the right habitat.  A deep forest or open fields are not going to be good for locating tracks in the snow, but finding a transition of the two should bring you success.  A transitional habitat will offer a wide variety of vegetation and cover. This is often an intersection between two habitat such as forest and field, field and stream, or forest and stream. You can look for tracks or even scat, yes poop, to identify who lives there.

The scat of a animal can tell so much. Scat can tell you what type of animal by its size, shape, and consistency. Analyzing scat by dividing it into piles of bone, feathers, hair and other miscellaneous items like seeds will give you an idea of what the animal is eating and possibly who else lives in the area if you are lucky enough to find a skull. Be careful as animals leave scat in areas in which they feel safe, such as close to their homes. Never touch the scat without wearing throw-away gloves and if the scat is dry do not inhale any dust, this can cause lung infections.

Quick Scat guide:

Tubular – dog family, raccoon, skunks, opossum, bears
Tear drop or tapered – Cat family
Fattened Threads – Weasel Family
M&M’s – Rabbits & Hares
Oblong (may have nipple at end)- Deer
Pencil Lead – Rodents
Fox are tubular and tapered at both ends- between a cat and a dog
Pellets – Raptors (hawks, eagles and owls)

(to see photos, click here)

Happy Tracking!



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