The first snow may have disappeared so it’s hard to find animal tracks, but there are other wildlife signs that can be observed regardless of snow conditions.
Evidence of wildlife activity falls into various categories. Signs of eating, defecating, marking territory, courtship and mating, shelter, or travel offer clues to “who done it” and can provide insight to their behavior as well. The key to interpreting the clues is to become a keen observer.
Feeding signs are some of the easiest hints to locate and discern because animals that are active in the winter eat a lot to stay warm. Throughout the fall, mice and squirrels have been caching nuts and seeds in places that are accessible during winter. The gray squirrel has an amazing sense of smell and can locate food (usually acorns or other nuts), scattered throughout its territory, even when buried underground, beneath the snow. Look for holes dug through the snow as a sign of gray squirrel activity. Red squirrels stash their seeds (usually pine cones) all together in underground cavities, under tree roots or in log piles. They haul the cones out to extract the seeds, eating in the same place and leaving a pile of cone scales as a clue to their “lunch counter.” Other rodent pantry locations are found underbrush and woodpiles, inside stone walls, or in old burrows. Mice will store smaller cones such hemlock and spruce. If the left-overs include nutshells, look at the size of the teeth marks to determine which rodent did the chewing.
Teeth marks also provide signs of larger animals at work. Both beaver and porcupine are active in the winter and eat the inner bark, twigs and small branches of trees and shrubs. The porcupine, being an adept climber, usually feeds high in trees where it is out of reach of most predators. You may find bits of branches (up to ½ inch in diameter) on the ground beneath a hemlock tree, one of the porcupine’s preferred foods. The chewed end of the twigs are cut on a diagonal with parallel teeth marks that measure about ⅜ inch wide.
The width of the teeth marks can help distinguish the porcupine chewing from its cousin the beaver which leaves a gouge that is up to ½ inch wide. Beavers, equipped with webbed feet for swimming, are not climbers and must bring the treetops to ground level, rather than going up into the branches for their food. By chewing through a tree trunk to cut it down, they gain access to the inner bark along the length of the tree as well as the branch tips and twigs. A downed tree stripped of its bark provides a great observation station to closely examine the beaver signs and use them as a comparison when you find similar clues to other animal activity.
Teeth marks can be found on items other than plant materials. If you are lucky enough to find a shed antler or remnant bone lying on the ground, they will not only indicate the presence of white-tailed deer or a previous predator and prey interaction, but if you look closely at the bone, you may notice small etchings on the surface caused by small mammals. Rodents gnaw on bones to attain calcium. Again, the size of the teeth marks will indicate the identity of the nibbler as seen in the chart.
Not all herbivorous mammals have distinctive chisel edged teeth with which to bite plants. White-tailed deer only have incisors on the bottom of their jaws. When they nibble at buds and branches or strip bark off trees and shrubs, they do so with a scraping and tearing action. This leaves a ragged or shredded piece of bark instead of a clean cut. If a snowshoe hare had taken a bite in a similar spot, it would leave behind a clean cut at a 45 degree angle, with quarter-inch teeth marks.
Some of these distinct signs may seem subtle, but taking time to notice can enrich any outdoor exploration and remind you of the other beings who are utilizing the wild places.