Squirrel Skylights and Coffee-drinking Coyotes?

IMG_5091The tracking club met at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph. The temperature was close to O degrees Celsius. Deep snow brightened the landscape under an overcast sky.



Coyote Track in Deep Snow

Cotton-tail rabbit tracks greeted us as we wound through a conifer forest beside Marden Creek. A nearby trail captured the group’s attention. A mammal had alternated between a trot and a walking gait through the evergreen trees. Its stride length was 22 inches while trotting. A second trail caught our attention. The animal was travelling with a companion. Most of the details of the animal’s prints were concealed by the deep snow. However, upon closer inspection, we noticed two claw marks registering above the floor of the track. Coyotes!


Ann called out from further up the trail, “There’s another clue up here!”

Cottontail Rabbit Fur

Cottontail Rabbit Fur

A pile of rabbit fur captured the group’s curiosity. The coyotes had been successful in their hunt! What was the story of the hunt? We carefully observed the details of the trails in front of us. We noticed that one of the coyotes moved through the conifer forest while its companion appeared to have been waiting; crouched on a rabbit highway downhill from the trail. Did the rabbit get startled by the coyote moving through the conifers? Did it head towards its well-travelled rabbit highways, hoping for escape but instead finding a hungry predator instead? Tracker-extraordinaire Mark Elbroch says, “Tracks and trails are truly a script for those with trained senses, and they tell many stories rich in drama, suspense, mystery, love and sometimes horror.” So true!

Marden Creek

Marden Creek

The creek beckoned for us to explore the trails under a bridge and on the snow-covered icy surface. Two trails caught our attention. One trail looked like an animal walking slightly pigeon-toed after exiting the open water nearby. Byron found a second trail underneath the bridge – a mammal with 5 toes in a 2×2 bound. We wondered if a mink had been tracking a muskrat in this wintry, watery realm.

The group wandered uphill, clambering over old quarry remains and rocky crevices. A 2×2 print entered an opening in the rocks. The mammals’ trail width was about 2 inches and we wondered if a long-tailed weasel had been there. The coyote’s trail reappeared nearby and Adrian seized the moment to smell the canine’s urine, noting that it “smelled like urine from someone who had been drinking coffee”. Is this a sign that the coyote was dehydrated? Is a coffee-like smell connected to coyotes and mating season?*


Red Squirrel Tunnel with skylights

The best trail was yet to come. Carolyn showed everyone a tunnel between two cedar trees. The width of the trail matched a red squirrel and some surface tracks matched red squirrel as well. However, the red squirrel had done something quite bizarre. It had poked its head, up out of the tunnel every few centimetres or so, making a series of “skylights”. As our curiosity expanded, we smiled, imagining why and how the animal had done this. We all agreed that none of us had seen that before😊

*I did some reading on-line and learned that canine urine smells strongest when the canine has a meat-based diet and is snow-hydrated. This urine is often darker. Alternatively, a kibble-fed, water-hydrated canine will have lighter coloured urine that does not smell as strong. Since mating season for coyotes is in January and February, I understand that dominant males use strong-smelling urine to mark the edges of their territory during this time period. Interesting!


Red Squirrel Tunnel with skylights

Written by T. Anderson