Dedicated gardeners take pleasure from strolling in their gardens each morning, checking for ripe fruits, new blossoms, wilting leaves and — argh! — half-eaten tomatoes, corn and melons! Someone’s been nibbling in my garden — but by knowing which animals are doing damage in my garden and yard, I can develop a strategy to protect the plants — and so can you. Many of the creatures who share space in our ecosystem are nocturnal; being able to identify their tracks may be the only way to know who is stealing your cat’s food or nibbling on your veggies while you sleep.
Do you remember being a little kid, splashing barefoot in the mud? You left behind wonderful impressions of your bare feet. Animals do the same thing in mud, sand and snow, and maybe on your patio or in your gardens. To identify animal tracks, find an animal tracks guide to use as a reference to compare the sizes and shapes of the footprints you see on the ground. Some books, such as Peterson’s Field Guide, show the foot of the animal, the print, the print as it looks in snow and the scat (droppings) of the animal, for easy comparison. My favorites are opossum and raccoon tracks. Their front feet look similar to a human hand with all the fingers splayed. You can tell the difference between them – possum front feet tracks are wider than they are long, and raccoon tracks are squarer and may be larger. But again, knowing the shape of the track can be more important than the relative size – a large opossum may have a bigger footprint than an adolescent raccoon.
To learn more about the habits of your nocturnal visitors, use fluorescent powder in the area where the critters are feeding to see their tracks and follow them in the dark. You can find the fluorescent powder online and at school supply or rock-hounding stores. Identify a place in your yard or garden where you know there has been animal activity. Sprinkle the powder on the dirt where there are tracks. Before sunrise or the following evening after dark, take a black light and shine it on the powdered area. Not only will you be able to see the animal’s footprints, but you can follow their tracks using the black light. Be cautious, however, to identify the animal you’re following — if it’s a skunk, you might want to consider a different path.
To capture animal footprints for further study, use plaster of Paris to make plaster casts of deep prints in the mud. This is a great child/adult project. The casts also can be painted and used as funky patio accessories.
In addition to eating your garden veggies and flowers, animals can do serious damage to the bark of bushes and young trees, especially during harsh winters. When no other food source is available, the pliable, unfrozen bark of trunks and small branches can make a life-or-death difference for many herbaceous mammals. Voles, pocket gophers, rabbits, beaver and deer all will eat bark when their regular food sources are unavailable. You might want to use wire fences, tree trunk wrap or electric tape fencing to discourage your nightly visitors. In the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York, the forest surrounding the many lakes looks as though it has been pruned along every shoreline. In fact, when the lakes are frozen, deer walk on the ice and eat the low-hanging branches. It gives the mountain lakes an especially tidy appearance. The Peterson’s Guide also has a section on gnaw marks.
Gardening is a creative and life-giving activity. But we do share the natural world with many kinds of indigenous life forms. Finding ways for us all to share the bountiful resources makes for a more peaceful world.
Raccoon tracks photo by istockphoto/pipedreams
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