Sunday, March 14, 2010

Clues left on the ground.

(A coyote track in mud)
I live in a fairly wild part of the bay area. There are bobcats, coyotes, various raptors, and mountain lions sharing the land where I live. Yes, mountain lions. This point has been brought up recently with three staff seeing mountain lions in the past two weeks. About a week and a half ago two of the naturalists had fairly close encounters with a puma. They had found a very fresh deer kill on property. And by fresh I mean within 5-6 hours. 1 of the staff was walking by and saw the lion sitting with its kill and it stared him down. Another naturalist saw the animal loping away. They estimate that the animal was between 130-150 pounds. My partner Jen saw a cat run across the road on the way home from a meeting late one afternoon. I have not seen one yet. 

Anyway, once I heard that a mountain lion was around, and that there was a kill site nearby, I needed to go explore. I have not been able to see a kill that new before, and the thought of finding more tracks was exciting. About a week earlier a naturalist had found three really nice prints when she was out with her field group. I spent about 30 minutes making notes and measurements of the track and imagining what the animal looked like as it moved up the hill.

The kill site was pretty amazing. Don't worry, no photos here. If you would like to see them, email me. It is amazing what a large cat can do. Unfortunately the area around the kill was mostly covered in a thick leaf and twig covering, and with people coming to check out the site, I could only find hints of prints and animal trials. After a little while chatting with two other naturalists about the lion, I headed out to an area where I had seen lion tracks before to see if I could find any new ones. No luck, but I did find some good coyote tracks-like the one above, and some neat deer tracks-See below.

The last photo is not a deer, it is a pair of worm tracks! I found no new mountain lion tracks, but I did have a great time being outside and finding other signs of animals. I also got to see and hear a great many birds. Anyway, as I walked home I spent a good deal of time thinking about tracks. I love seeing footprints left by people, birds, and animals. It is a brief glimpse into the movement of an animal on its daily rounds. Now you can get very obsessed with finding and following tracks. My goal is to give you some basics. The great thing about tracking or becoming track aware, is that you and your kids will begin to re-pattern your brain with how to see patterns in nature. Tracks are simply a different pattern left in the ground than what is usually there. 

So in general tracking requires you to notice things that are out of place or are creating patterns. A depression in the Earth, grass shinning or dull, sticks broken, sharp angles, and recurring patterns. As you notice from the pictures above -especially the deer prints- tracks can come in different shapes even from the same species.

Here are some general tips for tracking:
- Try and keep tracks between you and the Sun. Lighting can make a HUGE difference in how you see tracks.
- Cat tracks tend to be rounder than dogs and rarely show claws.
- Canine tracks tend to be oval in shape and often show claws.
- Deer tracks tend to look heart shaped and have a pointed end.
- Birds that live and hunt mostly on the ground will usually walk, while birds that hunt and live in the trees more will usually hop.

You might notice that I used the terms "usually" and "tend" in these tips. There are trends in tracking, and nature provides us with a wide range of variety. There are some other tips you can use especially when you are just beginning to spot tracks:
- Mud provides a great medium for tracks.
- So does snow.
- If you live in a area with sand, you can find many more tracks than those of us in wooded areas.
- Bodies of water are great areas to look for tracks-animals need water.
- Animals have routines just like us and tend to take the same trails on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

A fun game to play with kids around where you live is to see if you can determine whose shoes left what tracks around your house. Using shoes is great because so many of them have unique patterns on the bottoms. Play around with making tracks in different soils and mediums.

Websites to visit for tracks: A website by a tracking friend of mine here in California. A good site with several good links.

Nature Nugget:
Another sign that animals have been around is that they leave scat. Scat is the scientific term for poop.  So to follow that fact, I am going to try and answer the question one of my camp staff asked me years ago: "Why is poop brown"? So here we go:

Scientists have been pondering the question "why is poop brown" for centuries and still have not quite figured out why. As it turns out, and you may have noticed, not all scat is brown.  Sometimes scat can be green, yellow or nearly black.  On occasion there are pieces of plant matter, fur, bones, etc in it too. We are talking about animal scat here, not human.

Some animals like rodents, rabbits, and shrews have two types of scat. One is the typical kind -- waste that is left behind. The other, however, is dark and rich in vitamins. Just like cows regurgitate and chew cud to get more nutrients from their hard-to-digest diet, some animals eat this special scat. Now isn't that a tasty thought!

The color of scat can help determine the animal's diet. Dark scat means lots of meat for carnivores, and moist plants for herbivores. White scat is often dried out. Blue scat means berries, whereas grey carnivore scat usually indicates the presence of fur. Grey, and the presence of actual fur helps too!

Some animals, like deer, leave scat as they walk. But other species, particularly those with dens, have a latrine area so they can keep things tidy. Just like pet cats, wild cats try to bury their scat. And some animals, like mountain lions, use scat as territorial markings. I have found that coyotes tend to poop on a high point in a trial as a marking sign.

Birds, reptiles, and amphibians sometimes combine their scat and urine. A white nitrogenous deposit on scat means it didn't come from a mammal. However, just because there is no whitish layer on the scat doesn't mean it didn't come from a bird.

Bird pellets, also known as cough pellets or casting, aren't scat, but they are similar: pellets are the undigested remains of meals that birds regurgitate from their gizzards. Raptors like eagles and owls and corvids like ravens and crows, as well as other birds cast pellets, including herons, gulls, and kingfishers. Pellets are often found near roosting or nesting sites, though some birds will cast pellets were they ate. In them, you can find hair, bones, beaks, claws, and other clues as to what a bird’s last meal was. You can find owl pellets on-line to order for home science projects.

Now in people, our poop, you could call it scat if you want, is mostly shades of brown or yellow, but other colors can occur as well. I found two explanations of why scat is brownish in color. The first is that digestion is aided by bile and when bile is metabolized by bacteria in the large intestines, a byproduct called stercoblin is created, which gives poop a brown color. The second reason says that dead blood cells release iron that is then converted into bilirubin which gives our poop a brown color.

Now in people we can also have multi-colored poop. Some illnesses in babies gives them green or even blue-green poop. I found out on a backpacking trip with teenage boys, that freeze dried cobbler turns poop a very odd color of green. The kids were a little freaked out at first! In the front country, another source of blue poop in children is more innocent: it can come from eating a concentrated source of blue food coloring such as ice cream. Intense red food coloring can produce bright red poop. Sometimes brightly colored foods pass through the gut almost unchanged, and poop may be speckled with bright red fragments such as pimentos, or that favorite, bright yellow kernels of corn. 

And now you know!

As always, feel free to leave a comment here, or email me at:


  1. Very good, this was my first visit (I came across a link from some other webpage. Sorry I can't remember which one).
    Tracks and scat are always interesting to kids (okay, and some of us adults as well) :-)

  2. Sharon:
    Glad you liked it. I will do some more postings on both tracks and scat in the future. And you are correct, I have very rarely found kids who don't at least like scat a little. I am one of those adults who still find scat very interesting.