An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Using All Your Senses

1-26-17-deer-urine-049a2725Many wild animals are nocturnal or crepuscular, limiting our chances of firsthand observation of them. Those of us curious to learn more about their lives take advantage of whatever signs these elusive animals leave. In winter, evidence of their presence in the form of tracks and scat can tell us not only their identity, but their diet, direction of travel, size, etc. Beds, kill sites and signs of feeding also provide crucial information. There is one more sign that is often overlooked and under-utilized for identification purposes, and that is the scent of an animal’s urine.

Not everyone will necessarily wish to add this identification tool to their arsenal of naturally curious skills, but for those willing, scent-detection can be extremely useful, especially if conditions for tracking are poor, or if scat is not found. Not only is the scent of a species’ urine distinctive, it can often be detected at a distance. At this time of year (breeding season) red fox urine can easily be mistaken for striped skunk spray. Porcupine urine is strong and distinctive, but hard to describe. Once you’re familiar with it, it can guide you to the location of a den. Coyote urine is very dog-like; bobcat very cat-like. Surprisingly agreeable is the pine-like scent of White-tailed Deer urine (pictured).

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23 responses

  1. irene

    someone needs to create a scratch and sniff book for this to help us hone this new skill!

    mary….?…
    (haha).

    but, seriously, the lack of such a learning aid explains why we’re not better at it.
    i sometimes catch an animal scent when i’m out walking that i cant identify, and am sure i’m not alone.
    thank you for this daily positive note to my days.

    January 26, 2017 at 7:41 am

    • I love your “scratch and sniff” book idea…believe me, I’d love to write such a book, but I think I’d have a hard time convincing a publisher it would be a big seller!

      January 27, 2017 at 8:09 am

  2. Alice Pratt

    Does the scent of their urine change during the year with their change in diet?

    January 26, 2017 at 7:43 am

    • Great question, Alice! Not that I’ve noticed.

      January 26, 2017 at 8:33 am

    • But now that I think about it, most of my urine-smelling takes place in the winter (easier to find).

      January 26, 2017 at 8:34 am

    • Kathie Fiveash

      Or maybe when they eat asparagus??

      January 26, 2017 at 10:51 am

  3. Glad to see you mention scent. For the past five years or so, my sense of smell has become particularly acute. I often catch a strong whiff of an animal’s visit before I see any visible signs, but didn’t know how to discern who’s urine it is…except for the coyotes. Late February through early spring is the standout time for this experience, though any damp period throughout the year seems to make sniffing out wildlife easier for me.

    January 26, 2017 at 9:06 am

  4. I know raccoon scat can cause giardia, leptospirosis and roundworm if sniffed. What about their urine?

    January 26, 2017 at 9:25 am

    • Kathie Fiveash

      Where does this info come from? It doesn’t make sense to me – I’d love to know the source. I would have thought that it would only apply to actually ingesting scat.

      January 26, 2017 at 10:58 am

    • I have never heard of nor read about anything being contracted by smelling urine, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. If it were, I think it’s fairly certain to assume that I would have contracted it, given the number of years I’ve been engaged in this practice!

      January 27, 2017 at 8:03 am

  5. Bill On The Hill...

    How about the Scottish highlanders that put horse dung between their teeth to determine who knows what.
    It has to be true, I saw it on T/V! :>)

    Bill Farr…

    January 26, 2017 at 11:13 am

    • !!! and how exactly do they determine it?

      January 27, 2017 at 8:03 am

  6. Louise Garfield

    I smelled what seemed like skunk spray all around my house, and even inside the house and car, a few weeks ago (and occasionally, still upon re-entering the house). Could the origin of the scent have been fox urine? Do skunks hibernate or hang out under a porch perhaps, and maybe one got startled (I had just seen a raccoon prowling about in daytime) which might account for a spraying?

    January 26, 2017 at 11:42 am

    • Skunks definitely become active during warm spells in winter. Sounds more like skunk than fox to me!

      January 27, 2017 at 8:04 am

  7. Kathryn

    I love the “scratch and sniff” book idea! Some people are so funny!

    January 26, 2017 at 12:40 pm

  8. Someone mentioned giardia in scat…I’ve been taught to be careful of smelling urine, as well – that getting close to it for smelling may make one close enough to whiff in anything being carried by the air. Any comment or experience?

    January 26, 2017 at 4:03 pm

    • Interesting. I’ll have to do some research, but several decades of engaging in this hasn’t hurt me, as far as I know…

      January 27, 2017 at 8:05 am

      • Libby Hillhouse

        If my memory is correct, it was Sue Morse who stated the caution, but I may be misremembering how she stated it so many years ago.

        January 27, 2017 at 8:15 am

  9. This was an important skill when we were more connected to the land for our survival. Glad you’re keeping those neurons firing, Mary!

    January 26, 2017 at 9:55 pm

  10. Years ago I was walking along the Hubbardton River and found a shallow depression dug in the mud close to the water which was filled with urine. Yes…. I did sniff it. At the time I guess that it was someone in the weasel family. Do you have an idea of who might have done this? It was oval shaped and about 2 1/2 inches long.

    January 28, 2017 at 7:07 am

    • No, I don’t…other than moose wallows, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an animal scraping a hole to urinate in…interesting!

      January 29, 2017 at 5:46 pm

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