Thursday, March 28, 2013

Animal Enigmas: Spring on the Prairie

Spring on the prairie can be quite enigmatic.  Heck, life on the prairie, at any time, can be quite enigmatic!

As I walked around this morning, I found several freshly excavated holes.  They were about 3" wide and easily as deep, maybe a bit deeper.  This one was quite near the back yard....

...but these were part of a cluster of about a dozen, similarly sized, in the middle of the Back 5. 

In my experience, these holes aren't big enough to be an armadillo's work, let alone a coyote's.  Given that the cluster of holes was far from any tree, I tend to discount a fox squirrel as the digger, which was the first possibility that popped into my mind.   On the other hand, the holes seem too big to have been made by a mouse, a vole or a cotton rat.  Cottontails don't dig holes of this nature, that I'm aware of.  Perhaps a skunk?  Does anyone have any guesses...or, better yet, any knowledge of what might have caused this size of hole, at this time of year?

Detective work of this sort underpins quite a few of my prairie "sightings".  For example, I know we have a fairly active coyote presence, but I rarely see them. Unfortunately, when I do see them, I'm so thunderstruck that I don't even think to throw my camera up and take a quick shot - if, indeed, I have my camera with me.  So far none of the coyotes I've seen have sat around patiently and waited for me to take their picture.

We do hear the coyotes, at night, fairly regularly.  

Two winters ago, we noticed several large holes that had been dug in the Back 5 and I eventually figured out that they were made by coyotes, digging up vole colonies and eating yellow-jacket combs (and probably some voles as well).  By the way, the blue cell phone in the hole is there for scale.

That same winter we had the mystery deer skull appear and move around a bit, eventually parking itself for almost a year beside a compass plant, before magically disappearing one night.  The dogs were always VERY interested in the scents they found around that skull and made a beeline for it as soon as they got close.

Yesterday, I found signs of coyotes again.  This time I noticed tracks, sized appropriately for coyotes, on a couple of leftover snow drifts.  Note the (significantly larger) tracks that Becker made next to the coyote tracks.

Of course, it's also pretty common to find coyote scat, a.k.a. coyote poop, along the trail too.  This is distinguished from dog poop by being smaller and from cat poop by being larger.  It also tends to be full of hair and bones.  There wasn't a great deal of scat to be seen this winter, but in the last few weeks I've been noticing more and more.  Here is one of the coyote piles, showing the hair that commonly makes up such a large portion of their volume.

A couple years ago I even found some coyote scat with cat claws in it, so I knew that one of the many barn cats in the area had been added to the food chain.  Scientists make studies of the bones and hair in scat to determine what the animals they study are actually consuming.

Another common animal trace that I see is a trail.  Some trails are larger and show up in the grass, like this one I photographed leading towards my neighbor's plum thickets.  I believe this trail was made by rabbits....

However, some trails are fairly faint, showing up best after a burn.  These, for example, are prairie vole trails that I photographed after our last burn.  Normally I don't notice vole trails at all, except occasionally when a particularly well trafficked one crosses over one of the mowed paths in summer.

The last trail I'll show here was invisible when it was made - under snow - but exposed when that treacherous white stuff melted.  It seems smaller than a vole trail, so I'm guessing that it's a mouse trail of some sort, but I'll have to do a lot more research to figure out what species.  Unlike the vole trails, shown above, this one was deeply and precisely incised into the soil.  Interestingly, it disappeared from view soon after being exposed and now, 3 weeks later, there is absolutely no trace of it.

Greg got me a trail camera for Christmas, which I've been playing with in and around the bird feeders.  Now that the soil is softer, it's time to sink a couple posts around the property and find out for sure what animals are busily creating puzzles for me.

In the long run, sometimes the most interesting observations and findings come simply from being alert to changes, then asking myself what could have caused an effect like that.  It's far from an exact science - but it certainly keeps the old brain cells busy!


ProfessorRoush said...

In the past, with holes like that, I'd have bet skunk. However, I've got some burrow type holes that size, with dirt thrown around them, that seem to be colonies, so I'm wondering some sort of rodent in that case.

Gaia Gardener: said...

I've got some colonies of prairie voles that develop a sort of central mound with holes a little smaller than this - but these are different. I've been doing a touch of research, and I'm still leaning towards skunk until/unless something else develops.

Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

The trail camera is a great idea. You have a lot of activity to capture. Can't wait to see what it gives you.
Cat claws in the coyote scat. Wow.
Cold a opossum be digging at your place? Maybe that coon you saw

Jason said...

I would have thought those holes were from squirrels digging for or hiding food. But do you have many squirrels?