Thursday, January 1, 2009


When you are backpacking you get a chance to get away not just from the city but from farms, roads, established campgrounds, and other places that people are. You really get out into the "backcountry" while backpacking. So you would think that backpackers would see a lot more wildlife. In my experience this isn't the case. Sometimes I'll go on a hike where I see no animals at all and then in my own subdivision I'll have to stop my car while a whole herd of deer cross the road. I'm much more likely to see rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, and possum in my backyard than on a backpacking trip. Missouri is full of beautiful birds of many kinds. But most of them are more easily seen by hanging a bird feeder in your backyard than by seeking them out in the wild. Even hawks are relatively common to see along the highways.

I think the reason is that suburban animals have learned that humans are not dangerous most of the time and so they don't bother trying to avoid us. Animals in the backcountry still have the fear of man and even a lone backpacker on a trail makes plenty of noise to send wild animals scampering.

However in the backcountry there are animals that you will seldom or never see in the city. But you may have to be content with seeing signs of them.

Above is a picture that may not look like anything to you. But as I was hiking the Western Taum Sauk trail recently it really stood out. The forest floor was covered in leaf litter. But I kept seeing places like this where the leaves had been pushed away and the ground had been dug up. This is where a feral pig has been rooting around, searching for something to eat. You can learn about the problem of feral hogs in Missouri here.

On my Bell Mountain Wilderness hike I came across the following set of prints near Joe's Creek.

Since the prints seemed to be following the trail I thought they might be from a large dog accompanying some previous hiker. But then I realized they were much too big for any dog I know of. Notice the comparison with my own foot below.

Afterward I checked with some people who know a lot about such things and they confirmed that these were bear prints. (The clue is that all the toes are in a line rather than the center toes being forward as they would be for a cougar or dog.)

I've also seen a lot of scat (droppings) while on the trail. Lately it has been largely composed of persimmon seeds. Persimmon trees are native to Missouri and produce a lot of fruit. I'm not sure whether these are hog or bear droppings.

Owl pellets are another sign that is common. You even see them in the suburbs sometimes. As a scout I would sometimes see owl pellets in New Mexico. They were small and contained lots of tiny bones. The owl pellets I see here in Missouri can be really big! We have larger owls here I guess. The big pellets seem to be from owls that have eaten a rabbit because large amounts of rabbit fur are what you see.

Beavers are also common in Missouri but I've never seen one. Generally you only see the dam they make. This weekend I'll be hiking in an area where people have reported seeing beaver dams. Perhaps I'll take a picture.

I'd like to see signs of a bobcat or a cougar. Bobcats are common in the Ozarks. It used to be thought that there were no cougars in Missouri but recently they have been seen. A cougar could live pretty well off the deer and feral hogs so it wouldn't surprise me.

The animals and birds I actually have seen in the wild that I don't typically see in the city are

1. Groundhogs
2. Turkey, typically in a flock of about 10
3. Snakes (Osage copperhead, black rat snake, some kind of water snake I can't identify).
4. Turkey vulture
5. Bald Eagles

Hopefully this list will get longer as I spend more time backpacking.


Jacqueline said...

The bear tracks were sobering. Owl pellets are fun. Rebecca sometimes buys them for the kids, wrapped in aluminum foil. Katylin and Kelon both like to open them. Interesting post.

Lybi Winzenz said...

That was interesting about the feral hogs. I think I'd rather have a freezer full of ham than a freezer full of gamey elk, though. Hopefully the hunters can get 'em under control.

Bears!?! This is exactly what keeps me from camping very much. I nkow it may seem silly--bears are not common everywhere. But actually one of my friends was camping over here and had her truck invaded by a bear during the night. It was going after the recently caught fish in the cooler. But she was only 30 feet away, in a flimsy tent with her kids. Yikes! Be careful.

I think owl pellets are so cool. You'll have to mail us one sometime. My boys will think it is Christmas again. Sam fancies himself as quite a scientist.