Who was here? Clues from Wildlife Sign

wolf track by Ken Bevis
Wolf track in road mud in northeast Washington state. This log scale ruler marks tenths of a foot, so the track is about 5 and a half inches long. Photo: Ken Bevis/DNR.

The bull elk stalks through the forest, holding his enormous antlers back so he doesn’t tangle in the brush. The tiny warbler flits through the canopy, seldom letting us have a good look. The woodpecker chisels for food and cavities in dead wood. Small mammals creep along under the edge of down logs. Cougar and bobcat slink around the forest edges.

Wildlife captures our imagination, filling the forest with life, but can be difficult to observe directly. Yet, we can discover some of what wildlife use our lands through keen observation.

Keep a Record

I encourage small forest landowners to keep some kind of record of what sort of wildlife they observe and encounter on their property.

Excerpt from a wildlife journal
Excerpt from a wildlife journal kept by a family living near the town of Curlew in northeast Washington state.

It could be as simple as a journal entry with species, specific location, behavior and numbers, all written in a notebook or hard bound book. Some keep an electronic record on their computer or mobile phone. Any method is good, because it gives you a chance to compare notes from year to year, while reminding us all to try to become experts on the kinds of wildlife using our property.

Look for “Sign”

Sign is an old word and expression referring to physical things telling us about our environment.

Many animals will leave behind sign, telling us of their presence and their lives.

Droppings (poop or scat) are a sign that can usually be identified to species. We often find some poop along our walks, and sometimes wonder what it is and what it can tell us. Note the shape, location, freshness. Don’t touch too much (wash afterwards), but pull it apart and see what is in it.

A good reference for thinking about scat is the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management at www.icwdm.org.

Once on the website you’ll find several questions whose answers can help to narrow the possibilities for what sort of scat you’ve observed. These questions include:

  • White in the droppings? This is from a bird, or even a reptile
  • Size: Length? Width? Consider the expected size of the anus of the animal it came from.
  • Shape: Is it like a pellet? Tubular? What are the ends shaped like?
  • Where did you find it? Under a tree? On the trail?
  • Are there pieces of bone or hair? Seeds or fruit pits?
  • Where are you? What kind of habitat is it? What are the possible animals?

Use these clues to figure it out. Become familiar with the different forms of deer poop, and what bear or coyote scat looks like.


Deer and elk leave tracks (and rubbed small trees in the fall). Moose have big feet and distinctive tracks. Bear and cougar are very different.

It’s more difficult to find tracks of smaller animals but it can be done. Tracks are often distinctive, but need to be put down in the right substrate. Mud along roadside puddles is perfect medium for track impressions. Walking with a landowner east of Colville, we found the print of a lone wolf in a muddy puddle on a remote forest road. Location, shape and size tell us it was wolf. The landowner’s big golden retriever was along and the dog’s track was only two-thirds the size of this one.

Light snow on a hard surface also is a great way to find tracks. We all remember the day when the snow was just right and we could suddenly see what animals had passed by. Dusty roads can work too. Ever see insect tracks in the dust?

Critter Parts

Sometimes bones or feathers we find can give us clues. Think about the body structure of an animal. Hard and white larger bones are mammal. Bird bones are delicate, and even the largest birds (eagles, ravens, or geese) have relatively small bones compared to a raccoon or snowshoe hare. These fine bones degrade quickly in the outdoors. Reptile bones are rarely found, and never amphibian bones. All animals share the same basic anatomy, and a great exercise is trying to reconstruct the body of the creature from the small clue of a bone, or collection of bones. Call it CSI wildlife.

Another important clue is the setting. Did the animal die from predation? Was it scavenged? How many pieces did you find and how old are they?

shrew mole
A shrew mole found dead. Photo: Ken Bevis/DNR.

Individual feathers are usually molted, or shed, in the normal course of the bird replacing its resplendent covering. Try to figure out the species by color, pattern and size. Which part of the bird did it come from? A pile of feathers, often on a log, can indicate a kill by a hawk, usually an accipiter like a Cooper’s, sharp-shinned or goshawk. They will pluck breast feathers, and some tail feathers, and either eat the rest right there, or carry the carcass to a favored feeding spot.

Rarely do we find whole dead animals because the forces of scavenging and rot are so formidable.

Recently, however, I did find a dead shrew-mole (an unusual mammal) on a forest road near Mt. Rainier. It was still floppy, and I do not know why the animal was dead. But it did give open up a teachable moment, and I learned about Neurotrichus gibbsii, and this amazing little critter’s lifestyle.

Song and Call

In the springtime, territorial songs and calls of birds will reveal species and defended territories, but it takes a trained ear to differentiate between the subtle calls. There are several good apps now that link song to bird species. Go out early in the day with someone who is good at “birding by ear,” and you will be amazed at what is out there.

Mammals don’t vocalize very much. Coyotes call often in the late spring and summer when pups are exploring. Elk bugle in September and October. Deer sometimes bleat. But in general, hearing a mammal is uncommon.

Tree Sign

beaver sign on tree
Clear sign that a beaver was here. Photo Ken Bevis/DNR

Beavers are the only critter to chew through large tree stems. Deer and elk rub saplings leaving bald areas on the tree’s lower trunk. Woodpeckers leave distinctive holes in trees for feeding and nesting. Bears can strip the cambium off of small diameter saplings in wet forests. Tree sign is among the best because it lasts a long time!

Wildlife is elusive but not invisible if we are alert to all of the ways of detecting and understanding the amazing animals we share our forest with. Open your senses to the little pieces of evidence all around us as we walk in the woods!

Bear sign
Bear sign is hard to miss Photo: DNR.

Send me your wildlife photos, pictures of sign and stories so I can share them when teaching our Coached Planning classes this year. And consider signing up for a Coached Planning course when one is help near you, or take part in our online version of the course this winter.

By Ken Bevis, stewardship wildlife biologist, Washington Department of Natural Resources, ken.bevis@dnr.wa.gov

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