You may have been hearing Coyotes howling more than usual lately. This is because their mating season has begun, and they are much more vocal prior to and during it. Another Coyote sign to be aware of this time of year is the abundance of Coyote scent-marking, with both urine and feces.
Female Coyotes come into heat, or estrus, only once a year for two to five days, in late January or February in the Northeast. It is not unusual to come across spots where both male and female Coyotes have scent-marked during this time. Often one will mark on top of or next to its mate’s marking. Sometimes the female’s blood can be seen in her urine, or, in the case of the pictured marking, her blood dripped onto the snow as she investigated her mate’s urine.
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It’s that time of year again, when the odor associated with skunks wafts through the air, even though most skunks are denned up and in a state of torpor. This odor is the perfumed urine of Red Foxes, especially intense during their mating season, which begins around the middle of January. They use both urine and feces to communicate their presence, dominance and sexual status to other foxes and do so frequently (urinating up to 70 times per hour when scavenging at this time of year!). Stumps, logs and other raised surfaces often serve as scent posts.
According to scientist Dr. Mark Elbroch, Red Foxes “employ any of 12 different positions to urinate upon precarious perches…”. It’s fun to imagine exactly which one was used that allowed both a foot print and urine to appear on the pictured raised log!
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Congratulations to Rinky for being the first person to correctly identify that a Black Bear had been rubbing its back side against a utility pole in Monday’s Mystery Photo! A vast majority of responses were correct! Because of the relatively warm fall we’ve had and the ample food supply, Black Bears are still active in much of northern New England. There is a limited amount of time when bears are awake and snow is on the ground, allowing you to see what they’ve been up to. This year they are still feeding fast and furiously and, as the tracks in the snow confirm, scent marking.
Black Bears of all ages and both sexes engage in scent marking – rubbing their scent on trees and telephone poles (as well as biting and scratching them) that are often located along travel corridors. Scent marking typically occurs during the breeding season in June, when males, especially, announce their presence by standing with their back to a tree or pole (often one that leans) and rub their shoulders, neck and back against it, leaving their scent.
The tracks in Monday’s Mystery Photo were discovered recently at the base of a utility pole in New Hampshire. One look at the tracks’ position, pointing away from the pole, tells you that the bear that made them was facing away from the pole and rubbing his back side against it – proof that scent marking is not limited to the breeding season. (Photo: Black Bear scent marking the same pole in mating season, taken by Alfred Balch)
(If you are feeding birds, it would be wise to bring your feeders in at night until we’ve had enough cold weather to drive Black Bears into hibernation.)
When 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)
Foxes, like all canids, tend to mark their territories frequently with both scat and urine. Both convey information to other foxes regarding hierarchy and sexual status, in addition to marking territory. As these Gray Fox tracks crossing a pond illustrate, it’s rare for an elevated object in a fox’s line of view not to be visited and anointed. Research shows that when scavenging, foxes urinate up to 70 times an hour, allowing just a small amount of urine to be left in any one place. In addition to rocks, stumps and other raised objects, the remains of a meal are often urinated on, indicating that the nourishing portions have already been consumed.
Red Foxes are generally solitary animals, except during their courtship period, which occurs any time between December and February. At this time mates pair up, so it is not unusual to see two sets of fox tracks together. This is also the time of year when the males’ urine acquires a strongly pungent, skunk-like odor detectable from hundreds of yards away.
Female coyotes have one heat, or estrus, a year, sometime between January and March. As the time approaches, mating pairs scent-mark in tandem. The female urinates and then the male usually follows suit and urinates adjacent to it. After mating, the reverse takes place, with males often urinating first and the females adding their scent afterwards.
Once estrus arrives, drops of blood are often evident in the female’s urine, but scent-marking isn’t the only place you see evidence of estrus. If you come upon a coyote bed in the snow this time of year, inspect it closely — the females’ beds often will have drops of blood in or near them (see photo). A recent discovery of a group of five coyote beds showed evidence that at least two of the beds had been occupied by adult females in estrus.
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Scent-marking plays an important communication role in the animal world. A variety of species use glandular secretions to convey (for some distance) messages. From beavers spreading castoreum on scent mounds to fishers leaving their scent every time their hind feet touch the ground, the woods are alive with messages often undetected by most humans. Some of these are left by White-tailed Deer, which have two primary scent-marking behaviors: antler rubbing and scrapes.
One used to associate an antler rub with the act of a buck removing drying velvet from its antlers. However, it turns out that very few rubs are made by deer removing antler velvet, a process that’s normally completed within 24 hours. Instead, most rubs are made by relatively few dominant bucks to signal their readiness to breed and to mark their territory.
All White-tailed Deer possess specialized forehead glands that become increasingly active in autumn, particularly in adult males. All bucks spread their scent by rubbing their foreheads (which contain specialized scent glands) against trees and shrubs that have smooth bark, few, if any, lower limbs and are ½” to 4” in diameter. (Older bucks also will rub trees six or more inches in diameter.) In the Northeast, Trembling Aspen, Staghorn Sumac, Red Maple, and willows are often used for this purpose.
Mature, socially high-ranking bucks exude greater amounts of the glandular secretion than do younger males or females. They begin marking their territory soon after losing velvet and continue marking until they cast their antlers in December or January. The chemical signals left at a rub site tend to suppress the aggressiveness and sex drive of young males. However, those same signals stimulate females. The amount of rubbing an individual buck does depends on the level of testosterone in his blood, which in turn is largely determined by the animal’s age and dominance status.
We may not be able to detect the chemicals on a rub, but it’s hard to miss the sight of the light-colored blazes that magically appear in the woods at this time of year. (Photo: White-tailed Deer rub on Staghorn Sumac. Thanks to Chiho Kaneko and Jeffrey Hamelman for photo op.)
Black Bear males are not shy about making their availability and intentions known to the opposite sex. Their most prevalent means of communicating this information is to leave their scent on trees (as well as other structures, such as telephone poles– see photo) by scratching them with their claws, biting them and rubbing on them with their shoulders, back and neck. Often they will use the same marking tree year after year, with signs accumulating on the tree.
Both males and females mark trees year-round, but at this time of year, at the peak of their mating season, males are especially active markers, in order to convey their social identity, reproductive status and location to female passersby. One might consider such marking trees as ancient “scratch.com” mating sites. If you find one, be sure to look for stray hairs that have been inadvertently left behind. (photo by Alfred Balch)
Fishers are one of the most rewarding mammals to track as they leave so many signs. One of the most common ones, other than their tracks, is their scent posts. This is where a fisher rubs itself, anointing the substrate with its scent as it marks its territory. Young saplings often serve this purpose. The fisher rubs and rolls on a young tree, often a conifer, usually breaking a few branches.
If you see a scraggly-looking sapling in the woods, and there are fisher tracks nearby, examine the sapling closely for fisher hairs that often get caught on the branches when a fisher rubs against them. More often than not, the fisher will also mark the tree with a bit of scat or some urine. Fishers are very adept at controlling the amount of feces they leave, often excreting very small portions as markers throughout their travels.
Red foxes communicate in a number of ways, one of which is to scent mark with urine. During their breeding season, which is at its peak this month, male fox urine takes on a strong skunk-like odor, detectable by most human noses. These “sign posts” advertise the fox’s presence, its dominance and sexual status to all other red foxes that pass by.
Foxes leave scent marks along the boundary of their territory, as well as within it. Often you will find both urine and scat placed strategically on elevated objects, such as rocks, stumps and vegetation emerging from snow as well as at the intersection of two trails. Both male and female foxes leave scent marks. Researchers have found that when foxes are looking for food, they mark up to 70 times an hour. When just traveling and not hunting, they do not mark as frequently.
Female Eastern Coyotes come into estrus only once a year, usually in late winter for two to five days. For two or three months prior to as well as during this time, males roam widely and scent marking by both males and females increases. During their mating season, coyotes often travel in pairs, and it is not unusual to find scent posts where both male and female have scent marked with their urine. (The female’s urine is often tinged with blood.) The percentage of females that breed in a given year (typically 60% to 90%) depends upon the availability of food and their physical condition.
Many animals communicate by scent marking in order to stake out territory. This is done through specialized glands on various parts of their bodies as well as with scat and urine. In addition to defining territory, scent marking may also communicate additional information such as the sex, reproductive status or dominance status of the territory-holder. Fishers are a prime example of a scent marking predator. In addition to scent marking with glands on their feet, fishers rub, urinate and deposit scat often near or on raised surfaces (stumps, rocks, saplings), where their scent is likely to be widely dispersed. Frequently scat will also be found near a fisher’s resting spot.
When marking with scat, fishers are somewhat unusual in that it appears that they can control the size of the scat they leave. While field guides say fisher scat is between two and seven inches in length and roughly ¾” in diameter, this is not always the case. (Neither is it always dark and twisted – some fruit, such as rotting apple in the pictured scat, will cause it to be lighter colored.) One wonders what determines the size of the scat that a fisher leaves. Does it plan on marking a great deal in the coming hours, and so parcels it out in bits and pieces so as not to run out? Or is a large amount not always necessary if it has back-up scent from its feet and body? The pictured scat (to the right of the depression a fisher left while resting at the base of a tree) is less than an inch long, and about 1/3” wide — roughly the size of a white ash seed. Chances are that after spending enough time in one place to melt crusty snow the fisher was capable of leaving far more feces, but it chose not to.
When there is deep snow on the ground, white-tailed deer are often preferred-eating for eastern coyotes, with snowshoe hares not far behind. While small rodents are also consumed during the winter, they make up a larger proportion of a coyote’s diet during spring, summer and fall. With only a few inches of snow on the ground currently, meadow voles are still very vulnerable to predation, as the tufts of grass where they tend to nest are still visible.
Tracks indicate that a coyote stopped to investigate numerous grass tussocks scattered throughout a nearby field recently. Near several of these clumps of grass were slide marks (see foreground in photo) where the coyote had jumped, landed and slid. The groove made by the coyote’s sliding foot always ends with a foot print. At this particular site, the coyote had pounced, slid and then dug and uprooted a nest, possibly procuring a vole, but leaving no trace of success behind. What it did leave behind was scat (3 o’clock in photo), with which the coyote claimed ownership of the site.
When one thinks of fishers, meat-eating predators come to mind. While it is true that the fisher is a generalist, opportunistic hunter and scavenger, and feeds on any prey it can catch and kill (snowshoe hares, rabbits, squirrels and other small rodents, birds, bird eggs, smaller weasels, shrews, porcupines, raccoons, amphibians, reptiles, carrion and a very occasional cat or chicken), it also consumes fruit and nuts, especially when prey is scarce.
Given the amount of apples that are available this fall, even if prey isn’t hard to find, it is not too surprising to see fisher scat composed solely of apples at the base of this scent marking post (confirmed by fine fisher hairs at the very tip of the stump as well as scat).
Black Bear (Ursus americanus) breeding season begins in May and lasts until early July, with mating occurring mainly during June. The female traverses her territory at three times her normal rate during this time, laying down a scent trail which the male follows. Both male and female periodically intentionally deposit their scent by straddling vegetation, breaking off small limbs and biting, scratching and rubbing on trees (and telephone poles if available). Tree species often used for marking include White Birch, Balsam Fir, Striped Maple and Red Pine. When contact between the bears is eventually made, they nuzzle and chew on each other’s head and neck and may even wrestle a little. Mating occurs repeatedly for several days. (Thanks to Alfred Balch for photo op.)
Coyotes mate in January and February, but pre-mating behavior started two to three months ago. During this period scent marking increases, as does howling, and males wander far and wide. Female coyotes come into heat only once a year. When this happens, and two coyotes pair up, they may howl in a duet before mating. If there is an ample food supply, most females will breed and between 60% and 90% of adult females will produce a litter. The size of the litter fluctuates with the size of the rodent population; lots of rodents means larger litters. The same pair of coyotes may mate from year to year, but not necessarily for life. (Photo taken at Squam Lakes Natural Science Center)
During their breeding season, or rut, bull moose display a number of behaviors that are not commonly seen any other time of year, and many of these behaviors leave obvious signs, including broken branches, scraped bark, wallows and tracks. Bulls roam their home ranges, thrashing their antlers back and forth against shrubbery and saplings while leaving their scent. The sound of their antlers beating against vegetation is thought to signal the bull’s dominance to other males, as well as serve to attract females. The pictured broken balsam fir sapling and its frayed bark are evidence of this behavior.
We’re approaching the peak of the black bear mating season in late May and June, and there’s no better time to look for bear sign than right now. Both male and female bears increase their movements during this time of year. According to the North American Bear Center, males have mating ranges 10-15 miles in diameter and each mating range contains 7-15 female territories. During May and June, both sexes, but particularly the males, mark their territory by leaving their scent on trees, shrubs, telephone poles, sign posts, etc. They do so by thrashing around, rubbing their shoulders and neck against trees and poles, biting and clawing them and urinating on young trees and bushes that they straddle as they walk along. Often the tops and many branches of saplings are broken off, as is evident in this photograph taken recently by Alfred Balch of Lyme, NH.
Do you know a 3 – 8 year old who loves animals and would enjoy getting close-up views of the antics of a red fox kit during the first summer of his life? My second children’s book, Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer, has just been published by Sylvan Dell in both hardback and paperback. I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to observe and photograph young red foxes as they interact with each other and with their parents. This book consists of a selection of these photographs, accompanied by text and an educational component at the end of the book. Look for Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer in your local bookstore. If they don’t carry it, you would be doing me a huge favor by asking them to. Thank you so much. My next children’s book is on Beavers and will be coming out in the spring of 2014. (I am still looking for a publisher for Naturally Curious Kids!)
For the past two to three months, coyote courtship has been taking place. Both males and females have been marking more frequently, and male coyotes have been traveling further than usual in search of a mate. A female has marked the top of the stump in the photograph – you can see the foot prints she made as she squatted to urinate. The blood-tinged urine indicates that she is in estrus, or heat. With luck, you might hear the duet of a male and female coyote that is sometimes sung just prior to copulation.
If the increased yelping of eastern coyotes hasn’t caught your attention, you may not be aware that this is the peak of their breeding season. Female coyotes come into estrus once a year, for a period of about 10 days. For the past two or three months, working up to this, male and female coyotes have been increasing their scent marking. Occasionally you can find where a female has marked with urine, leaving behind a spot of blood (see photograph). Eventually she attracts one or more sexually active males, and mating ensues. Something I’ve never witnessed, but would love to, is the howling duet of a pair of coyotes prior to mating.