It pays to watch the behavior of woodland animals

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The two hours after dawn and the two hours before dusk offer wildlife watchers and hunters excellent viewing opportunities. I like to sit quietly with my back to a big tree, and watch and listen. Chipmunks, squirrels, and other small mammals often dominate the action as they alternate between barking out alarms calls and searching for food.

Ground dwellers

Sometimes the first rustling comes from the forest floor. The absence of a larger animal sharpens my focus on the rustling leaves. The glimpse, if I even get one, is usually brief. A deer mouse, a vole, or a shrew dashes from one den to another. Every moment above ground is a moment at risk. Hawks, owls, and foxes pounce on those that lollygag.

Chipmunks, a common sight in many backyards, will soon disappear into their subterranean dens for the winter, but gray and fox squirrels are just entering a period of frenzied activity.

On cold winter days, I can count on seeing two squirrels chasing a third. For as long as an hour, the single-file pursuit continues — up one tree, down another, along a fallen log. After a short rest to devour an acorn or grab a few sunflower seeds from a feeder, the chase resumes.

Courtship

All the while the squirrels scold each other with a repetitious series of guttural barks. These “squirrel races” are much more than friendly fun. They actually represent an early stage of squirrel courtship. Usually it’s two males chasing a female.

By getting an early start, gray and fox squirrels are ready to give birth in mid-March. Red squirrels are equally conspicuous. They constantly bicker among themselves, with larger gray and fox squirrels, with blue jays, and any other creature that dares to venture into their territories.

Red squirrels make up for what they lack in size with pure pugnacity. Most mammals, however, are nocturnal and difficult to observe during the day.

Birds are better indicators of what’s happening in the woods. And it is information hunters and watchers should not ignore. Mixed flocks of chickadees, titmice and nuthatches are among the most obvious sentinels.

I call these birds the “social climbers” because they form mixed, arboreal, social flocks. Numbering from a handful to more than 20 individuals, these birds can be your eyes and ears as you wait for deer or turkeys to move.

Chatty birds

Vocal by nature, these species “talk” almost constantly as they forage in the tree tops. With a little experience, it’s easy to recognize every day conversations. Alarm calls are louder and more urgent. When a member of these mixed flocks detects an intruder, they warn the entire group.

During warmer weather, the danger might be a large black snake climbing a tree trunk. In winter alarm calls are more likely elicited by hawks, owls, or cats.

By paying attention, great looks at screech-owls and sharp-shinned hawks are possible. Often, however, these foraging flocks sound the alarm before the intruder can be seen and identified. Small birds seem to know it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Savvy hunters pay attention to song bird alarm calls. Sometimes a distant buck or gobbler is responsible. Birds use keen vision and hearing to detect larger wildlife well before a hunter can. While foraging high in the tree tops, they have a panoramic view of the area.

Purpose

This is another reason I pay attention to birds. Over the years, agitated birds have alerted me to deer, turkeys, grouse, red and gray foxes, and even an occasional coyote. Someday, if I’m lucky and persistent, maybe they’ll point out a fisher or bobcat.

Whether you’re a hunter or a watcher, it’s hard to spend two hours in the woods and not to make at least one interesting observation. It’s why sometimes we can thank song birds for opportunities we might otherwise miss.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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