This feature is a reprint of a story that originally appeared in Arizona Wildlife Views.
Even when they remain unseen, animals often leave clues about their presence and routines. Anyone who enjoys watching wildlife can play Sherlock Holmes: Detecting evidence animals leave behind helps open up a window into their lives and adds to the outdoor experience.
Savvy detectives ask questions. What animals have been here? When? What were they doing? To find answers, note tracks in mud, sand or snow; feeding marks on cones, nuts or trees; homes and hiding places above and below ground; and feathers, pellets and droppings.
Use investigation manuals (field guides) to help narrow the choice of “suspects.” Most people are familiar with field guides that help identify animals, but evidence identification (wildlife sign) books include guides on tracks, nests, eggs, feathers — even droppings and clues to “What might have dug that hole?”
Telltale signs of distinct behaviors include scrapes on the ground (bobcats, mountain lions), scratches on trees (bears) and holes in trees (woodpeckers). Owls, which cannot digest the fur and bones in their meals, regurgitate the leftovers in solid pellet form. Finding these pellets around the base of a large tree tells the detective where owls roost or nest.
Reptiles and amphibians also leave evidence of their presence. Snakes leave skins behind after a molt. Lizards and snakes make distinctive tracks across dirt roads. In spring, watch for gelatinous masses or strings of toad eggs in almost any body of water.
Collect evidence of wildlife presence by smoothing over sand or mud — best near water or food sources — and returning the next day to see what may have passed by. Notice ends of sticks and broken branches: Have they been chewed by a beaver, muskrat or other rodent? Don’t let an area of flattened grass go unexamined. This is likely where an animal or group of animals bedded down for a rest.
On your next trip outdoors, take a page from “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” or “Law & Order.” Even when you don’t see animals, using observation skills to find evidence and practicing the
skill of deciphering clues to wildlife presence or activity will enhance your outdoor experience.
—Joe Yarchin, Arizona Game and Fish Department watchable wildlife program manager