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Wild in the City - Notes on Suburban Wildlife

by David R. Collins

Until just a few years ago, I was one of those down-in-the-mouth, pessimistic people that figured life on this planet was short and not-too-sweet. Thoughts about pollution, the threat of nuclear war, overpopulation, and violence seemed overwhelming to me. Even a walk in the woods was uncomfortable, feeling like a stranger in a strange land. But like nature herself, mankind is subject to the great universal law -- the law of change.

A few years ago, I was speaking with a former art teacher of mine and he cautiously informed me that he was now instructing classes in animal tracking. I didn't have the slightest idea of what he was talking about, or what this "tracking" stuff would ultimately lead to. I wasn't sure why, but I told him yes, I'd do it.

A few months later, I found myself on my hands and knees tracking a bobcat at night, feeling for the prints with my fingers. Along with a dozen or so fellow students, I spent that weekend bounding through the brush like a bird dog on opening day of hunting season. We spent hours on all fours, baking under a mid-day sun, peering through magnifying glasses and puzzling over the tiny tracks of lizards and insects. We were desperately thumbing through our Peterson's Field Guide to Animal Tracks, trying our best to solve the riddles written in miniature in the mud.

I was challenged that weekend. Challenged to learn more about the world we live in through opening up my senses. I was astounded at the sheer abundance and diversity of life to be found on an old logging road. Something inside me changed that weekend, and so began my love affair with tracking.

Returning to my home right in the middle of a city of 70,000 people, my walks around the neighborhood became filled with a child-like wonder and enthusiasm. Suddenly, vacant lots and old railroad beds had become my playgrounds. Wildlife was thriving all around me, but I hadn't had the training or openness of heart to be aware of it. Soon, plants, animals and even insects seemed to call to me saying, "Pay attention, I have something to teach you". And teach they have.

Through tracking, I have become a witness to the life and death struggles that occur everyday just outside our doors. I once followed the tracks of a dog through a vacant lot until they crossed with the tracks of a rabbit. The tracks told the whole desperate story. Running, zigzagging, jumping at just the right moment to avoid those powerful jaws set with sharp canine teeth. The rabbit escaped that day. His luck wouldn't be so good a few weeks later when a yearling gray fox came through. The tracks of the fox led to the rabbit's tracks, and then there was only fox tracks and bits of fur. Later in the fall, a small herd of does came to bed down in the weeds and tall grass during hunting season. All of this happened within an acre sized lot of so called "waste ground" surrounded by three heavily traveled streets, right in the middle of the city!

Within a half-mile of my house there are deer, muskrat, fox, opossum, skunk, beaver, raccoon, mink, hawks, owls, blue heron and even an occasional black bear who ends up getting darted, drugged and dragged away for "relocation". I'd like to think that he was headed to my yard for the kitchen scraps and peanut butter sandwiches I set out for the local animals. Maybe next time he'll make it.

Even disheartening and tragic events have been transformed in my life through nature. Walking a favorite trail one day in a nearby park, my heart sank to find a small heap of shiny 9mm shell casings laying scattered about the leaves. A chill ran up my spine as I thought of the deadly potential to both human and animal life. What could I do? I resolved myself to do something and spoke a quiet prayer to the trees.

Only a few days later I was near the same path, when a ghostly white stripe undulated along the ground in the pre-dawn darkness. I figured I would track this skunk later on my way back, but for now I was hoping to get the jump on a pair of red foxes that were setting up housekeeping nearby. Well, I didn't see the reds but I smelled them in passing, and if you've ever smelled something that reminded you of a skunk, but wasn't, you probably smelled a red fox. No, they would not let me forget the skunk I meant to track.

Little clods of turf had been ripped out by sharp claws. Here he was, and his trail led away from the field into the Scotch broom and brambles. Something black and shiny caught my eye. Jackpot! Following the skunk had led me to a full auto 9mm submachine gun and a.38 cal. revolver, both fully loaded. The local police came and disposed of the hazardous waste. They wanted to know how I found the guns, so I told them, "a skunk showed me where they were". They shook their heads and drove away, probably thinking I was as dangerous as the gun owners. I didn't expect them to understand.

You may think it coincidence, but I know in my heart that it wasn't. Ravens tell their comrades about dying animals and food, red squirrels chatter warnings to the entire forest of humans approaching, and even trees notify their leafy neighbors of invading fungi or disease through chemical messages. Navaho Indians tell of the creator speaking to them as "fly that lands on your shoulder". The Cherokee give credit to chickadees for saving lives by warning them of surprise attacks by hostile tribes.
What I say is not new. It is as old as mankind. Living in a modern society so well insulated from the natural world, it is perhaps harder than ever to hear the message that nature speaks. But we can hear them no matter where we live, if we open our hearts and listen.

And it will tell you in a small quiet voice, "Pay attention, I have something to teach!"

From In the Tracks of the Tracker magazine, Fall 1993
**There's more articles from In the Tracks of the Tracker magazine on the Tracker Trail website.