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Winter Wildlife Detectives: Animal Clues!

Posted by Cat Parrish
Children's Farmyard and Family Program Manager & Farm Based Educator

This is the second part of our Winter Wildlife Detective series on our For You & Your Family blog. Check out Part One: Who’s Out There? and Part Three: Print, Pattern & Place for more.

Wild animals are quick, sneaky, and can be hard to find out on the land, but they often leave behind signs or clues that they’ve been around.  On your next outdoor adventure, you can use many of your senses to discover these clues:

Animal Clues: Look High and Low!

  • Use the right and left arrows to explore animal signs you may see outdoors:

Here are some fun facts about the animal clues you may see:

  • Scat - This is what we call wild animal poop.  (Do you know what we call farm animal poop? Manure! )
  • Antlers vs. horns - Animals with antlers shed them every year and grow a new pair.  Animals with horns, on the other hand, keep and grow those horns for their entire lives.
  • Deer vs. rabbit - One way to tell whether a branch or twig has been nibbled by a deer or a rabbit is by the angle of the nibble. If the twig has been nibbled at a 45° angle, then it was a rabbit that was snacking.  If it is nibbled straighter across and is rough and torn, then it was likely nibbled by a deer. Of course, if the tree has been nibbled five feet up, then that will help you figure out if it was a deer or a rabbit as well.
  • Hair - Did you know that deer hair is hollow and traps air?  This provides insulation to keep them warm. Keep an eye out on your forest walk for any large ovals of melted snow. They just might be deer beds! Deer curl up in the snow when resting and their body heat will melt the snow, leaving the large oval. If you find a deer bed, make sure to investigate closely because you will likely find hairs the deer have left behind!
  • Animal urine - Ok, hear me out. So, you’ve found some urine alongside tracks that you think may be from a coyote, fox, or dog. One way to further investigate is to breathe on the urine to heat it up. If it then emits a skunk-like odor, that’s one more clue that the tracks may belong to a red fox. 

Can you think of more clues that animals leave behind? We only talked about signs you can see. But you can also listen for clues, like birds calling, squirrels chattering, coyotes howling, twigs breaking, or leaves rustling.  Try watching your cat, dog, chicken, or any other pet as it moves about.  Does it leave any clues behind?  The more you practice, and the more senses you use, the better detective you'll become!

Before you head out to explore, create a tracking backpack with wildlife detective gear!  You can include a waterproof tracking field guide like Animal Tracks and Scat, a ruler or measuring tape, magnifying glasses, binoculars, and a camera or journal to capture your finds. Make sure to warm up your eyes, ears, and nose before heading out on your winter walk with these activities:

  • Handful of Sounds from Shelburne Farms' Cultivating Joy & Wonder
  • Owl Eyes from Shelburne Farms' Cultivating Joy & Wonder
  • Camouflage from Shelburne Farms' Cultivating Joy & Wonder
  • Scent matching game:
    • Gather at least four small containers with lids (e.g., film or spice canisters).
    • Punch small holes into the lids.
    • Wrap each with a piece of cloth or paper, if needed, so that you can't see what is inside.
    • Add spices, or cotton balls spritzed with liquid scents to the containers.  Make sure you have two containers for each scent (e.g., two containers with oregano).
    • Mix the containers up and try to rematch the pairs by scent!

Now check out Part 3 in this series:  Print, Pattern & Place for more fun ideas!

Additional resources:

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