Updated: Jan 14
How the absence of animals can actually tell us a lot more than we think
I have loved animals for as long as I can remember. As a child, I would be transfixed by the sparrows, finches, blue tits and robins that would come into the garden. I even recall the odd hedgehog, which I unfortunately haven't seen for decades now. My passion for animals even led me to studying zoology at university.
In today's world with social media showing us hundreds of photos a day of exactly what we missed out on: that perfect shot of the elusive lesser spotted yeti or the video of the badger going shopping at the local Waitrose, we can often feel left out if we cannot capture a perfect photo.
Of course, I am by no means saying that it isn't wonderful seeing an animal within their natural habitat and getting a close up of what they look like - however, we can also gain a great deal from their absence.
This might seem a strange thing to say, so bear with me!
Animals interact with their habitat in many ways: they eat, they communicate, they travel from one place to another, they sleep, they raise their young, they die...all of these provide us with signs of what we are sharing space with, without having to see them.
Looking for food
On a recent walk in some local woods, I noticed two holes in a tree. I found it enthralling, not only because I have never seen a hole that so obviously looked to be made by an animal, but it was also less than 6 ft off the ground. Given that animals need to protect themselves from predators, it made me question what could have made this.
Woodpecker holes in Horsenden Woods
Having seen and heard them previously in the area, I guessed they were holes made by a great spotted woodpecker, however, due to the location, I posted it on a local wildlife FB group (Ealing Wildlife Group). A brief discussion concluded that whilst lower down than expected, it was in fact likely to be a woodpecker.
As a result of seeing this hole, I spent time researching woodpecker behaviour; whether they are animals that make the holes to find prey, to live in or for something else. I discovered that they eat insects such as beetle larvae, using its powerful beak to hammer holes in tree bark, then using their flexible tongue to extract their meal. They also eat caterpillars, spiders and a real surprise to me, they will also feed on the chicks and eggs of smaller birds.
Their distinctive drumming is a result of the noise they make against dead trees as a sign of territory by warning off rivals. Their shock-absorbing skull means they are not affected by the impact.
Funnily enough, I have seen woodpeckers in the area before and never felt inclined to research them, so discovering the hole triggered an interest in a very different way!
Many other animals show signs of collecting food or hunting, be the squirrels stash of nuts or the gruesome left overs from a bird of prey.
Again in Horsenden Hill, a local ranger recently spotted what is now believed to be roe deer tracks. This is a species that hasn't previously been known to inhabit the area. Being rather shy animals, if it wasn't for the tracks, knowledge of these animals living in the area would remain a secret for a lot longer so their tracks uncover a story that would wouldn't otherwise know.
The roe deer are indigenous to the UK and whilst distributed across the British Isles, they are more commonly found in woodland but also enjoy copses, scrub and hedgerows. According to the Wildlife Trust, it has "short antlers and no tail. It is mostly brown in colour, turning reddish in the summer and darker grey in the winter. It has a pale buff patch around its rump."
I remember being on safari many years ago with the guides not only being able to identify the animal from their tracks, but also the approximate time they passed through, direction and where they were likely to be going.
It is so easy to get caught up looking at our phones (come on, we all do it!), staring at our feet or simply thinking of the long list of things we need to do. Therefore, spotting animal tracks is the last thing we will see. So next time you are out, try to take a look to see if you can find some footsteps other than your own
Calls, Songs and Cries
There is nothing that I love more than birdsong. It has enthralled me since childhood, nevertheless, this appreciation doesn't mean I am able to identify even the common species. However, I still find it wonderful to hear the range of different bird songs and depending on the time of year, different types of calls. It instantly provides me with an instant calm by simply knowing they are around.
On a recent walk at Northala Fields, I heard a very distinct bird call. I headed in the direction of the sound until I came to the tree it was perched in. I stood still and tried to focus my eyes, looking out for branches that were moving. After a short time, I could find the beautiful blue tit calling.
If it wasn't for it's call, I would never have known it was there, simply walking past it!
I apologise for my shoddy camera work!!
It always astounds me that some of our tiniest birds can make such an impactful call - these small creatures can make sure a powerful sound which can instantly brighten our day!
With such a diversity of birds, using something like the RSPB site to ID what you are hearing can be really useful. There are no doubt a wide range of apps too.
Other animals that we can hear includes the distinctive and quite haunting bark of the fox, often when we are tucked up in bed and deer protecting their territory during rutting season.
Dens, nests, burrows; these structures are often out of reach or hidden as they need to ensure that both adults and young are protected from predation. Sight of these structures can provide us with further insight into what lives nearby.
Click here to find a resource which tells you more about common nests
There are many other signs of beautiful creatures living nearby, I hope this goes to show that even if we don't get sight of them, we can take comfort in knowing that they are about. So, next time you are out, remember to put on your detective hat on and look out for the signs, it might even make your walk more enjoyable!
Note: It goes without saying but please do not go about prodding or excavating habitats looking for the signs in order to get a closer look, even if you think it is no longer used.
Photos: Great spotted woodpecker tree and blue tit video and photos my own. Others from unsplash.com or referenced above.