When you travel on the highways of Illinois, you see signs along these roads. They tell you the speed limit, the town you are entering, how many miles until you arrive at the next town and many other facts. A highway sign is a posted notice of information that is important to travelers.
Businesses have signs, too. They help people find the location of the business, provide a list of items for sale and help customers in other ways.
Animals also have signs, although they aren't made of metal or neon. Wherever they live, animals produce evidence of their presence. Those pieces of evidence are called signs. We may not see these animals often, but we can tell a lot about them by reading the signs they leave behind. Tracks, scats (solid waste), rubs, scrapes, gnawed bones and nuts, shells, slime trails, holes, nests and shed skins are types of animal signs.
Tracks are footprints. They can be impressions in soft soil, sand or snow or imprints of muddy feet left on other objects. Along stream banks or at the edge of any body of water you're likely to find the footprints of many kinds of animals that come there to drink or feed. Tracks are different for each species, and you can identify the animal by looking at its tracks. There are field guides of animal tracks that can help you.
Evidence of feeding activity includes collections of nuts, seeds or fruits stored in a concealed spot (under logs and tree roots, or inside log piles and hollow stumps). Tooth marks on anything indicate feeding. Look for gnawed mushrooms or chewed nuts, fruits, leaves or twigs. Areas of bark are often chewed or stripped off as food. Look for tooth marks on the exposed wood. The distinctive signs of trees gnawed by American beavers (Castor canadensis) indicate the presence of this species.
If you are lucky you might find an owl pellet under a tree where an owl roosted. The pellet is coughed up by the owl and contains the fur, bones, feathers and other items that can't be digested from the prey it eats. You can even tell what the owl ate by looking at the contents of the pellet!
Signs of habitation can be interesting. Any natural cavity in a tree, stump or fallen log is likely to contain signs of use by some animal. Look for tracks, droppings and bits of food around the opening or signs of nesting within (piles of leaves, grasses or twigs).
Many animals live underground, and any undeveloped area will reveal openings to such dens and burrows. The movements of the eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus) can be tracked by the burrow it digs as at travels underground to feed. Some crayfish build a tall tower of mud balls around their burrow opening.
In areas of tall grass, you may find the runs of small mammals near the ground. In winter, you'll see the activity of these animals as tunnels in the snow.
Some animals build easily recognizable homes. Squirrel and bird nests are commonly seen in trees. Lakes, ponds, streams and swamps are likely to contain muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) or American beaver lodges. Hornet nests are easier to locate in winter than they are when leaves are present on the trees they are built in.
Slime trails left behind show the activity of slugs and snails.
Even fishes can leave signs! Look in the water along the shoreline of ponds and lakes for the remnants of the "beds" where they fanned the bottom with their fins to make a depression to lay their eggs.
Animals have distinctive solid waste materials, too. Eastern cottontail (Sylivilagus floridanus), coyote (Canis latrans) and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) pellets are some of the more common and easily identified wastes.
Skulls and bones can be used to identify an animal that has died. Shells of snails and mussels are signs that these animals were present. Snakes shed their skin as they grow. You might find a snake skin in a woods or prairie.
White-tailed deer mate in the fall. The male, or buck, uses his antlers and forehead to place his scent on small trees to help mark his territory. These "rubs" can be seen as places where the bark has been removed from small trees. He also makes "scrapes" with his hooves. The scrape is cleared of vegetation, and then the buck stands in it and urinates over his tarsal glands to put his scent on this bare ground.
Trails are used by white-tailed deer for ease in moving from bedding to feeding sites and back. Trails are paths traveled frequently by these animals. Deer beds are flattened areas of vegetation. They stand out when snow is on the ground because the warmth of the deer's body often melts the snow where it lays.
Going for a walk outdoors provides the opportunity for you to find animals signs in any season. Take a walk and see what you can learn by reading the signs!