When school groups visit Adkins Arboretum, I’m frequently asked, “How come we don’t see any animals around here?” The short answer: large groups of students thundering through the woods are not conducive to wildlife sightings. If you were a rabbit, wouldn’t you run at the sight of two dozen kindergarteners?
Fortunately, animals leave plenty of signs to let us know they’re around. While I’ve never seen a muskrat in the Arboretum’s wetland, I have seen watery muskrat paths through the ice and muskrat tracks at the water’s edge. I’ve followed fox tracks in the snow to a meadow den, examined owl pellets along the forest edge, touched praying mantis egg sacks, and spied the trampled grasses where deer sleep.
February is a great time for kids to practice their animal tracking skills. Snowy or muddy landscapes are rich in wildlife tracks, and there are plenty of handy track guides on-line and in stores. I recommend finding a guide specific to the area in which you live, unless you’re up for convincing your young adventurers that the “wolf” tracks they’ve discovered were actually made by a Golden Retriever. Tracks can give clues as to an animal’s weight, speed, gender, the direction it’s traveling, and how recently it’s been in the area. For the truly adventurous, buy a scat guide, too. Scat—aka animal poop—is a great source of information. As with tracks, identifying scat allows naturalists to identify the animal species in an area.
What other clues can young wildlife detectives gather? Winter hikes and nature walks are sure to reveal some of the following: dens, burrows, nests, trails, pathways, bones, feathers, and fur. Patches of missing tree bark may have been rubbed off by the antlers of white-tailed deer. Stumps gnawed to a point in watery areas are a sign that beavers have been busy.
Even my outdoorsy family balks when I suggest taking a neighborhood walk in the grips of a polar vortex. But wading through snow to a winter den? Following raccoon tracks to a hollow tree? Peeking at a beaver lodge along an icy stream? Now those are adventures they can’t refuse.
by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator