Bird footprints in thin snow

12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Traces of Winter Wildlife

You may not always see the animals that visit your garden or green space, but they can leave behind evidence that they have been there. Today, on day ten of our 12 days of winter wildlife, we will be exploring the telltale traces of winter wildlife.

Make a Wildlife Film

Why not try capturing the wildlife in your garden by making a wildlife film? If you have access to a trail camera/camera trap you might even see something you would otherwise miss. Watch the video from Ellie Bladon of the Department of Zoology for some top tips on making a wildlife film on a budget.

Winter Wildlife Profiles: Traces of Winter Wildlife

There are probably many more animals coming into your garden or green space than you are seeing. For example, mammals are often shy, and many are nocturnal. But that’s not to say you can’t tell if they have been there – many animals will leave behind some tell-tale traces that they’ve been there. Here are just a few:

Footprints in the bare soil of a flower bed
Muntjac footprints in the Botanic Garden

If you have soft soil or, in winter, snow, any animals walking across your garden or green space may leave footprints behind. Here are some footprints left behind by muntjac deer in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. You can find guides on the internet showing you how to work out what made the footprints you have found, like this one from the RSPB.

Scratch marks made by a badger feeding

Feeding Signs
You might be able to spot where an animal that has visited your garden or other outdoor space has been foraging or feeding. These are some scratch marks from badgers snuffling around in the Botanic Garden from earthworms.

Badgers also tend to follow the same routes around their territory, leaving behind paths like the one below through the grass in the Botanic Garden. If you have a trail camera/camera trap, put it out on a path like this and you are likely to get footage not only of badgers but of other wildlife too, using the well worn path as an easy route through the habitat.

Badger path through a lawn
Badger path through a lawn

Find a patch of feathers on the ground, and you can probably deduce that a bird of prey has been at work. And if you see the remains of nuts or pine cones on the ground, you can work out what might have eaten it by the state of what remains – you can find out more in the Discover Wildlife article.

Badger droppings in a latrine
Badger droppings in a latrine

Poo, dung, droppings, faeces – animals will leave these behind as well. It is possible to tell from the shape, size, smell and other properties which type of animal the droppings are from. Here is some badger poo we found in the Botanic Garden. This has been left in shallow its called latrines dug by the badgers, and has a distinctive, musky aroma – much as you would imagine a badger would smell. Again, you can find guides online to help you identify the droppings you have found, like this one from the Wildlife Trusts. Just remember not to pick the droppings up – they won’t be hygienic and could harbour parasites and diseases.

There is a food by-product that we can study quite easily that can tell us down the the species and even more detail what the animal had for dinner. That by-product? Owl pellets.

Ian Harvey, teacher and owl pellet expert, writes:

Pair of owl pellets
Owl pellets (c) Born1945 CC BY 2.0

Several hours after an owl eats its prey, the indgestible parts (fur, bones, teeth & feathers that are still in the gizzard) are compressed into a pellet. When the owl eats more than one prey item within several hours, the various remains are consolidated into one pellet and a pellet can contain the remains of one or over ten animals. Collecting, dissecting and analysing an owl pellet tells us so much about what an owl has eaten. It contains the bones from its prey, which we can identify: pelvis, femur, tibia and fibula, ribs, scapula, clavicle, radius and ulna, vertebrae and most tellingly, jaws and skulls.

Owl pellet dissected to show the bones and fur of its prey
Owl pellet dissected
(c) Sally Wilson CC BY-SA 2.0

Looking carefully at the jaws, teeth and skull help us to identify not only the type of prey, but the species. We can see if it’s bank, field or water vole, whether it’s common, pygmy or water shrew and if it’s field, wood or house mouse. Or it may be a rat!

There is nothing like dissecting an owl pellet to embark on a forensic journey of discovery! And there is more analysis possible. Expert, microscopic analysis of the hairs in a pellet can determine prey species. And getting very scientifically sophisticated, using DNA sequencing of pellet contents enables us to see what soft-bodied animals have been eaten, animals without bones such as slugs and worms. This type of analysis is important especially for the little owl pellets but clearly you can’t do this at home.

Keep an eye on the blog in January and we will share details of how to dissect an owl pellet. It’s not to be missed!

Winter Wildlife Crafts: Potato-printed Wrapping Paper

Create your own, sustainable wrapping paper with these instructions and designs from Learning Assistant Sara Steele

You’ll need:

  • Parcel paper or other recyclable paper
  • Paints
  • Paint brush
  • Cup of water (for cleaning brushes)
  • Potato
  • Kitchen knife
  • Chopping board
  • Paper towel

Animal footprint ideas:

  1. Gather your materials and clean your potato.
  2. Cut your potato in half and dab the flesh with a paper towel.

Top tip: dab the potato with a paper towel every now and then to keep the starchy liquid at bay.

  1. Take a pen and draw your footprint design onto the flat side of your potato.

  1. Carefully use the kitchen knife to carve out the design. You want the footprint to be raised, and the rest cut away.

  1. Paint the raised footprint shape with festive colours.

  1. Use the painted potatos to print a trail of footprints along your paper.

  1. Leave to dry.

Your paper is now ready for wrapping gifts for your loved ones.

12 Days of Winter Wildlife Day 11: Surprising Winter Wildlife

Close up image of snowflakes
(c) Scott Robinson CC BY 2.0

Visit the blog again tomorrow to find out about animals from around the world you might not expect to be able to cope with cold weather, and animals with some amazing adaptations to winter. Learn how to upcycle an old t-shirt into yarn, which you can use to make our exclusive snowflake crochet pattern for a unique decoration for gifts or for your home.

12 Days of Winter Wildlife catch up:

Robin on frosted willow branches
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on Day 1 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife. Watch the livestreamed launch, including a virtual tour of the wildlife in the Botanic Garden, a Q&A with Rob Jaques of the British Trust for Ornithology, and sing along with the premiere of the 12 Days of Critters song. Read the top winter wildlife tips from staff and students at the Museum of Zoology. Download our Winter Wildlife spotter sheet, and create your very own hedgehog in a leaf pile.

Robin perched in a yew tree
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on Day 2 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Garden Birds. Enjoy a wonderful film about attracting birds to your garden by Dr Andrew Bladon, listen to recordings of garden birds in winter by Dr Tony Fulford, and learn how to make seed cakes for birds with Lucy Williamson.

Completed moth craft as tree decoration
Moth decoration by Natasha Lavers

Catch up on Day 3 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Active Insects. In this post we explore the amazing world of moths that are active during the winter moths. Find out about moth-trapping with a film from moth expert Annette Shelford, discover winter moths and December moths with Research Assistant Matt Hayes, and make your own moth decoration out or recycled fabric with Museum Volunteer Natasha Lavers.

Woodlouse on wood chippings
(c) Max Westby CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Catch up on Day 4 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Life Underground. Join Dr Ed Turner, Curator of Insects, as he gives his top tips for creating a compost heap, and shows you some of the amazing animals that live there.

Ladybirds in the crevices of a tree branch
(c) Tom Austin CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Catch up on Day 5 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Hibernation. Find out about the insects that huddle away and stay dormant over winter with Matt Hayes, and create your own insect refuge for the garden with Sara Steele.

Pair of red foxes
Red foxes

Catch up on Day 6 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Mammals. Get under the skin of the Red Fox and Badger as Learning Officer Dr Roz Wade takes you on a guided tour of their skulls. Find out about the seal pups born in the middle winter on the Norfolk Coast with Dr Andrew Bladon and watch Ellie Bladon explore the conservation of the hazel dormouse with her award-winning nature film. And download our food cache memory game to see if you have a memory as good as a squirrel’s.

Waxwing with berries

Catch up on Day 7 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Visitors and discover the birds that escape the extreme cold further north by migrating to the UK for winter. Read winter visitors profiles and and listen to recordings of their calls by Dr Tony Fulford. Take a virtual tour of the winter visitors on display in the Museum of Zoology, and get inspired to make sweet treats and wrap them sustainably as winter gifts.

Long grasses and trees at dusk
Wicken Fen (c) Rosalyn Wade

Catch up on Day 8 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Healthy Habitats. Go on a virtual tour of Cambridge University Botanic Garden and see some of the wildlife it supports. Find out about those unsung heroes of the garden – earthworms – and discover what it was about their behaviour that Darwin found so fascinating. And read top tips on how to make more sustainable food choices – comfort food that is comforting to you as well as to the environment.

Group of mallards and swans
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on day 9 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Water. Discover the birds that live on and around water, from ducks and swans to herons and more. Find out about the importance of providing water for the wildlife in you garden, and catch up with the mini-pond created by museum staff earlier this year.

And remember to send your winter wildlife spots and creations to us by tagging us on social media or using #12DaysofWinterWildlife and you could feature in our online community gallery.

Bird footprints in thin snow
(c) Antony Oliver CC BY-SA 2.0

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