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Animal Indicators

For the past couple of columns I have been introducing you to the signs wild things leave when they share our landscape with us. We already know birds sing and come to bird feeders and animals leave tracks, but what other clues do they leave to tell us they were here? The reality is, there are hundreds of ways we can see who shares our space! Sights, smells, droppings, holes in trees, nests, songs and other sounds, and much more abound in nature.

Here are a few things to ponder: Is there a feather lying in the snow? Perhaps a bird hastily took off and dropped a feather? Or it just had a close call with a predator, resulting in the feather being plucked, but the bird was able to escape? Or maybe it was just moulting its feathers as it does every year?

Why do so many trees have holes in them? Many birds will work a tree when trying to build a nest or search for food. Small piles of bark at the base of a tree may indicate a woodpecker has been hard at work searching for insects, so look up, as it might still be there! Larger holes, dug by woodpeckers, usually mean they were searching for food, but a fresh hole, appearing in April or May, might indicate they have dug a nest hole to raise their young. Look for fresh markings around the edge of the hole to decide if the hole is new or has been there for some time. Sapsuckers (a type of woodpecker) bore hundreds of holes in trees as they try to encourage the tree to release its sap so they can then feed on the insects [which] are attracted to the sap!

Is the bark rubbed off the tree? It’s likely caused by a deer when it tries to rub the velvet off its antlers. Do you see scratch marks on the tree trunk? That might indicate a bear is nearby, as it scratches the tree to sharpen its claws and perhaps mark its territory. Is there a funny smell when you walk in the woods? Again this indicates, an animal has left a scent trail. This usually arises because it encountered a threat, as in the case of a skunk, but it can also mean it is warning off other rivals or trying to attract a mate!

What was that noise you heard? This one has many answers. We’ve already know about bird song, but many mammals make noises too! We are all familiar with coyotes as they serenade the moon, but many other critters also make sounds. Sometimes it is an alarm call, such as the snort a deer might make, or a scolding sound from a Red Squirrel. But other things also make telltale noise, insects have myriad ‘songs’ from the familiar cicada to the buzz of a bee or the chirp of a cricket. Every one of these have meaning to the animal [which] produces them, but all generally relate to territory, mate attraction or threat response.

What is the lump in the tree? Is it a nest? If you see a large array of sticks you instantly know a hawk, owl or crow has tried to nest there in the past. Almost all birds build nests of some type, but so do other animals. Most are underground or in secluded spaces, but the Gray Squirrel builds an elaborate nest called a drey [which] appears as a large irregularly shaped ball of leaves in a hardwood tree. Right now we see hundreds of scraggly looking ‘nests’ in our hardwoods, what could be building them? They are the remnants of nests a Fall Webworm, a type of moth, built last summer. The nest was designed to protect the caterpillar larvae from foraging birds and mammals, but now, they are simply left over webbing [which] will eventually disappear as weather erodes them. I’m going to switch gears for a bit in my next column, but I will come back to this subject in a few weeks, as there is much more to say. Stay tuned!

Geoff on-line at and on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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