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Nature

Good Natured in St. Charles: Ways you can decipher nature's news 'print'

Early in the day, you might be lucky enough to follow one animal’s tracks through pristine snow, but well-traveled trails are the norm in our suburban natural areas. Can you spot the wildlife sign among these prints of boots and shoes?
Early in the day, you might be lucky enough to follow one animal’s tracks through pristine snow, but well-traveled trails are the norm in our suburban natural areas. Can you spot the wildlife sign among these prints of boots and shoes?

We all have ways of keeping up with current events. Some of us watch TV; some read the newspaper or online sources. Personally, I like to study the sidewalk.

Each morning as I walk to work, I find so much I need to get caught up on. The squirrel that cavorts between a horse chestnut tree, and muddy prints from the fox that hangs out by the Hickory Knolls rain garden. The opossum tracks, complete with tail drag, that came up from one drain pipe, crossed the walk, and scuttled down to the pipe on the other side. The owl pellet at the base of a light-post.

These are the sorts of current events that make up a naturalist’s news day. The only problem is that, outside of nature-nerd circles, it’s the kind of information that goes largely unread.

Until today.

Because right here, over the next several weeks, we’re going to try and share the various tips and tricks we use at home and in the field to decipher the messages animals leave behind in the snow, the mud and, yes, even on the sidewalks, so that you too can read all the news that was fit to, uh, imprint.

You may be thinking, gee whiz, literally volumes have been written about the art and science of tracking. The thing is though, many of these are regional or even national in nature. You’ll see elk and moose tracks described alongside mule and white-tailed deer. But in our area, unless something really weird has happened, the only species that’s a possibility is the last one. The other animals’ ranges simply don’t extend to northeastern Illinois.

Instead of creating a comprehensive guide to tracking North American mammals and maybe a few birds, we’ve put together what I like to think of as the “Casablanca” approach to wildlife tracks and sign. That is, each week we’re going to “round up the usual suspects” that occur in our assorted suburban habitats – yards, parks and alleys, woodlands, wetlands and prairies – and provide you with the information you can use to make a positive identification of the signs they’ve left behind.

To start things off this week, we’d like to provide you first with a list of those “usual suspects” – animals to keep in mind as possibilities as you view tracks and other signs. Then, in the weeks to come, we’ll provide you with more information on groups of animals as well as individual species, with the goal of making you fluent in – or at the very least aware of – the habits of our most common wild neighbors.

Our roundup will include:

• White-tailed deer

• Wild dogs, such as coyote and fox

• Raccoons, opossums and skunks

• Weasels, including badger, otter and mink

• Rodents and rabbits

• Birds

For those of you eager to get going, I’d like to challenge you to commit this list to memory and refer to it in the coming week as you begin to observe the signs around you. Should you spot some animal tracks, crosscheck them against this list – you’ll probably find you can eliminate anywhere from several to many “suspects” right off the bat.

Keep these tips in mind too:

• Chipmunks and woodchucks are common in our area, but neither is active at this time of year.

• Skunks, opossums and, to a certain extent, raccoons curtail their activity in winter, but will come out on warm winter nights – especially in February, their breeding season.

• A single track may provide a clue, but if you can follow the tracks from one point to another, you might be able to figure out the entire story.

• Wildlife signs include more than just tracks. Look for scat (yes, that’s poop); fur or feathers; and gnaws/chews or other feeding remnants.

One last note. If you can, track down a copy of “Tracking and the Art of Seeing” by Paul Rezendes. This book first opened my eyes to this amazing way of viewing nature’s current events.

As a wildlife photographer, Mr. Rezendes has pursued many a quarry following only vague hints of tracks or other signs. It’s a book I highly recommend reading, and one that, along with our upcoming columns, certainly will aid you in keeping up-to-date on neighborhood nature news.

• Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org. Feedback on this column can be sent to editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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