Watch for these signs of wildlife in winter.
By Olivia DaRugna, Wildlife Diversity Biologist
The cool, crisp air; the silent, still landscape; and fewer hours of daylight — winter offers a unique time to spend outdoors. While viewing wildlife can be difficult in winter, looking for signs of wildlife is not. Winter is a great time to look for clues – such as tracks, scat and old nests – and solve the mysteries of the animals that passed through the area you may be standing.
So, put on your warm layers and boots and head outside. Even with less animal activity, you’ll still discover something new and improve your observation skills with each winter exploration.
During winter, tracks are not hard to find, whether imprinted in snow or frozen in mud. Once you find tracks, take some time to look at the shape, size, stride and pattern.
Does the size of the print and the stride indicate a large or small animal? Does the paw print include claws? If so, it could be a coyote, fox or dog. On the other hand, felines such as bobcats and mountain lions do not show claws in their prints.
Look for river otter slides near rivers and streams. Slides look like smooth, elongated indentations in the snow, followed by a few tracks and another slide. The belly sliding helps otters conserve energy.
Game an Parks outdoor educator Monica Macoubrie provides examples of animal tracks in her story “Winter Wildlife Tracking”. If you decide to take a photo of the track, be sure to place an item, like a pencil, next to the track for scale.
Scat provides another side to an animal’s story. Not only can you tell what the animal may have been eating, but you may also be able to tell what type of animal the poop came from. However, many species have similar-looking scat, making it difficult to identify the exact species with certainty. For example, coyotes and fox produce scats of similar size that often contain fur and taper at the end. Still, the shape and size of scat can at least help you narrow down to the general groups of animals.
Spherical droppings are typical of rabbits and hares. Elongated spheres are usually from rodents. Large spheres are likely from deer or elk.
Cats produce scat with blunt ends that can be split into smaller segments. Turkey poop is narrow and long, up to 3 inches, and mostly brown or green except for a white end that is made up of nitrogenous deposits.
If you see what looks like white, faded paint running down a tree, this is bird poop, and it is a good sign of a roost location for birds, such as owls. Look up into the tree and search for a roosting bird. Then search the ground for gray, round pellets, which owls and some other birds “cough up.” Pellets are compressed, indigestible parts made of the bones, beaks, hair and claws of the prey they consumed earlier.
With no leaves on trees, winter is a great time to look for nests. A large cluster of sticks in a tree is typically that of a raptor, such as hawks and eagles. Slightly smaller stick nests are usual for corvids, such as jays and crows. While most birds are not nesting at this time, you may still find a great-horned owl using an old raptor nest come January and February.
Look for small cup nests in trees and shrubs. In early summer, a songbird wove this nest of grass. Although the small birds and their young have likely migrated south, their nests are reminders of warmer days and bird song.
Bird nests are not the only nests to look for. High in the trees, you may see several large clumps of leaves, which are squirrel nests. Watch the squirrels in your yard, and you may see them entering and leaving these nests.
Although many birds have migrated south, Nebraska is as far south as some birds go. Watch and listen for common redpolls, snow buntings and horned larks in fallow fields and around patches of sunflower. Backyard birding in winter is also great this time of year. Keep your bird feeders full and the suet stocked. You may see chickadees and nuthatches come in to grab seeds to cache in a nearby tree.
Look for chew marks on trees. Hungry porcupines or squirrels are known to strip bark from trees, leaving behind shallow gnaw marks and shavings at the base of the tree. Also, look for beaver sign along trails near rivers and streams in the form of pencil-shaped tree trunks where a beaver chewed.
Looking for animal signs is a fun winter activity for the whole family. So, put on your nature detective hats and head outside to your yard, local park or a nearby state park or state recreation area to look for clues of wildlife.
Wildlife Viewing Events this December
Christmas Bird Counts: The CBC is the National Audubon Society’s 124-year-old event that takes place every year from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5. Birders of all ages and skills are welcome to join the more than 18 counts occurring across Nebraska. New participants are encouraged to join other birders, count the birds in the comfort of their homes or cover an assigned area on their own. If you are interested in participating in a CBC, see page four of the November 2023 Burrowing Owl newsletter for dates, locations, and send an email to the appropriate contact in advance of the CBC date.
Ponca and Indian Cave state parks Christmas Bird Counts: CBC events will also take place Dec. 14 at Ponca State Park from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and Dec. 28 at Indian Cave State Park from 9 a.m. to noon. For more information, contact Indian Cave at 402-883-2575 or Ponca at 402-755-2284.
Project Feeder Watch is a community science project organized by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Anyone can sign up to participate in this survey that runs November through April. Participants identify and count the birds that visit their backyard or community areas and submit data online. Data collected is used to estimate winter bird abundance and distributions. Visit the Project Feeder Watch website to learn more and to sign up.