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ISSUE 120 VOL 12 PUBLISHED 2/23/2007

Trackers seek campus critters

By Emily Koester
Contributing Writer

Friday, February 23, 2007

If you thought the only thriving species at St. Olaf were squirrels and music majors, you had better think again. St. Olaf's natural lands are home to an eclectic assortment of critters large and small, and all it takes is a little sleuthing to find them – or at least evidence of them.

By taking a stroll through the woods or on the nearby cross-country trails, one can find tracks and other markings that not only indicate an animal’s presence but give us a few clues about the animal’s life. Student naturalists Amber Collett '07 and Willie Richardson '07 provided the Manitou Messenger with some advice on how to get the most out of an animal tracking expedition.

“The best places to go are the cross country trails and pond by Tostrud,” Collett said. Though Collett promised squirrel tracks are visible no matter where you are on campus, Richardson added an impressive selection of wildlife to the list.

“Typical tracks are cottontail rabbits, white-tailed deer, raccoon, ring-necked pheasant and crow,” he said. On some days, one can even find mink, red fox and coyote, though the naturalists note that one usually has to visit the prairie to find coyote tracks.

Animal tracking is more involved than finding a few imprints in the snow, however. Richardson said that by carefully taking in one's surroundings, one notices not just tracks but antler rubbings (the marks left on a tree when a male deer rubs a tree with his forehead and antlers) and scat as well. Such marks can indicate an animal's territory or what it has eaten for dinner.

Collett said that during their last visit to the natural lands, she and Richardson found over 10 feet of wing prints left in the snow from an owl or hawk swooping down – apparently unsuccessfully, from the look of the prints – to snatch its prey.

Gene Bakko, a biology professor at St. Olaf for over 30 years and curator of natural lands, certainly has his share of animal tracking memories. Despite the dreariness of Minnesota’s winter months, “winter is a time you can find out information you can never find out another time of year,” Bakko said. Bakko regularly walks to school through Olaf’s nature preserves. Just last week he noticed a line of coyote tracks that stopped a few feet before his own path; the coyote was clearly afraid to cross an unknown set of prints.

There is certainly more than meets the eye when it comes to animal tracks. Bakko said that an untrained eye cannot always distinguish between types of prints or even determine which way an animal is going. This is the case with animals such as rabbits, which plant their front feet while hopping forward with their hind feet.

There are a number of helpful resources for people interested in learning more about tracking. Bakko recommends checking out the Peterson Field Guide series. Collett and Richardson also note that the Science Library has plenty of books on animal tracking for students who would like to do a little animal investigating for themselves.

In the meantime, the naturalists just recommend keeping your eyes open for tracks anywhere around campus.

“You'll definitely see squirrel tracks,” said Collett. “I guarantee it.” For that matter, you'll probably those of a music major, too.

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