An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

The Sniff Test

1-30-19 red fox marking img_7153When your quest is to find out as much as you can about the identity, activity, diet and territory of your four-footed neighbors, it is logical to make the most of all your senses. Tracks can be seen, scrapings and bite marks on a tree can be felt and yes, one’s sense of smell can enhance any tracking expedition. Just as the tracks and scat of different species of animals have distinctive characteristics, so does the urine of different animals. Scent marking, including urination, is a behaviour used by animals to identify their territory, and therefore a highly visible sign in winter.

At this time of year, foxes are breeding, and without even putting your nose near where a fox has marked his territory with urine, you can detect its skunk-like odor as you pass by. If you’re so inclined (and I realize many readers may not be) you can heighten your sensory experience as well as your identification prowess by sampling the smell of other animals’ liquid waste. White-tailed deer urine has a pungent, piney smell, quite pleasing to this naturalist’s olfactory receptors. You can detect a porcupine den from a considerable distance by the pungent, very distinctive but hard to describe odor of its urine (which spills out onto and coats the bark of a tree den, thereby advertising the porcupine’s presence). Coyote urine smells very much like a domestic dog’s, and members of the weasel family often have musky-smelling urine, though a recently-sniffed fisher marking had very little scent.

Needless to say, it’s a lot easier to discover and sample urine when there’s snow on the ground and it is more evident. Virginia opossums, snowshoe hares, red and gray squirrels, eastern coyotes, red and gray foxes, raccoons, fishers, mink and striped skunks are all in or entering their breeding seasons, when scent marking is more frequent. Snow is currently on the ground, at least in northern New England. It’s prime time for olfactory activity, if you’re game. (Photo: stump marked by a red fox)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to and click on the yellow “donate” button.

15 responses

  1. Cheron barton

    R u game?!!😂

    Sent from my iPhone


    January 30, 2019 at 7:56 am

  2. Alice Pratt

    I’d be ‘game’ for smell tests, especially if I had a knowledgable human near me. If, for instance, porcupine urine is on tree bark…isn’t that a big hint to a predator? I thought that animals, like cats, take care to hide their waste, so they won’t be detected.

    January 30, 2019 at 7:58 am

    • Hi Alice,
      Yes, it does announce the porcupine’s presence, but the only real predators it has are fishers and man, neither of which would have much of a chance of killing a porcupine inside a cavity.

      January 30, 2019 at 10:00 am

  3. Diane Alexander

    Kind of a funny one. Nice to know tho (I guess). XOXO

    January 30, 2019 at 9:08 am

  4. Paula Hughes

    We do “put our noses to the ground” when we find animal pee. So much fun!

    January 30, 2019 at 9:14 am

  5. Clyde Jenne

    This is truly keeping your nose to the grindstone!

    January 30, 2019 at 10:06 am

  6. Janine Norton

    Thank you! Thank you!

    January 30, 2019 at 10:07 am

  7. Kathie Fiveash

    I’m game! I often go down on my knees sniffing. Nice to know there are others out there smelling more than the roses.

    January 30, 2019 at 10:21 am

  8. Libby

    I have heard a real precaution against getting close enough to smell urine, since there may be some bacteria or other elements which, if inhaled, could cause illness. Fox, especially, if I remember correctly…and certainly don’t handle any excretions. Any other recommendations for health and safety???

    January 30, 2019 at 5:13 pm

    • Hi Libby,
      I am aware of the danger of inhaling near scat (particularly raccoon), but haven’t heard similar warnings about urine. Will research!

      January 31, 2019 at 8:18 am

      • Libby Hillhouse

        Oh Thank you! Always helpful to have my own memory checked. :0)

        January 31, 2019 at 10:41 am

  9. Fascinating subject! We have everything mentioned here, except Porcupine! And steer clear of Fisher Cats, they are aggressive, if they see you they may charge you! I hate them! 😛 But that’s just me!

    January 30, 2019 at 8:04 pm

  10. Laurie Spry

    What a great post, Mary! I’m one of those who always gets a stick to see what’s in scat much to my companions’ dismay, and now I know why I always think ‘skunk’ early on winter mornings going about the farm!

    January 31, 2019 at 6:46 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s