SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
January 14, 1980
Trailing, or tracking animals by their signs, is unrivaled in Arizona's Huachuca Mountains, which contain an astonishing variety of habitats
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January 14, 1980

A Range Of Diversity

Trailing, or tracking animals by their signs, is unrivaled in Arizona's Huachuca Mountains, which contain an astonishing variety of habitats

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CR queried us closely, shuffled and spit, took a deep breath and said, "You know, this is such a pretty day I'd almost like to get out and walk up there with you if my knees weren't so bad."

I had been in the Huachucas only two days this trip and had already heard two stories about CR's knees. Will's was the better. CR had banged them up badly while trying to ride bulls on the rodeo circuit. He had hurt them again wrestling with a cow on the ranch. In the old days he probably would have spent the rest of his life a half-cripple, as so many cowboys have for the same reason. However, the Eastern magnate for whom CR works is of a different culture, a man of different means. He arranged for CR to fly to Boston for a complicated restorative operation. According to Will, when CR checked into the airline counter in Tucson he was asked if he wanted a seat in the smoking or non-smoking section. "CR told them he didn't want either," Will said. "He wanted the chewing and spitting section. They said they didn't have a chewing section. He said that was all right, just put him by a window."

"It was one of those little fellows in a fancy uniform," CR said, confirming the story. "It really did shake him up."

CR wished us well and rode off into the sunrise. We turned down a Forest Service road, slid across a few cattle guards and finally left the truck in a grove of Emory oaks on the flats a bit to the north of the mouth of Copper Glance. There were coyote tracks in the thicket. At least one animal had been there only a few hours before because the grains of snow thrown up around the prints were still distinct and fluffy, not melted by the sun. The coyote had been nosing under logs and pawing at dry clumps of yucca that are often refuges for mice. This animal had probably been having a dull time of it; rather than carrying his tail curled alertly over his back, he had often dragged it absentmindedly.

Another dog—a fox—had been making somewhat the same rounds and had occasionally used the trail that the coyote had broken in the snow. I thought it was probably a gray, simply because they are very common, but Will wasn't convinced. He thought it might have been a kit fox because the prints were very small. "They've come back since you left," he said. "I saw two or three this fall."

"We saw only one the whole year we were here," I said.

"I love to watch those little fellows," Will said. "The way they tippy-toe along like they were walking on eggs."

Besides tracks there are a good many other signs that contribute to trailing—displaced rocks, broken vegetation, bits of hair, tunnels, holes. A dependable one is scat, which every mortal being must sooner or later leave behind. Scats provide a somewhat more complete record than tracks, indicating not only that a creature was in a given spot at a given time, but also something about what it had been doing at least a few hours previously. A raccoon dropping that contains crayfish shell and is found high on a dry rocky ledge is evidence that the animal has ranged at least as far downhill as the nearest stream. Most mammalogist camps have a scat bag, and there are always scats to be dissected and recorded. It is tedious, though not particularly repulsive, work, and it is a good source of information about feeding habits, foraging territories and ecological relationships.

Scatology suggested that the winter had been a fairly hard one, at least for the coyotes and foxes that had been hunting the oak flat. There was scarcely any hair or other animal remains in the droppings. They were made up almost exclusively of traces of juniper berries, which are the C rations of these mountains, the food everything from rodents to carnivores turns to when other pickings are slim.

The first creature we met in the flesh was a roadrunner. There is a certain accuracy about the cartoon characterizations of roadrunners. They are indeed birds with an irascible, arrogant, vaguely rascally air. This one jumped out of a patch of agave, gave us a belligerent, go-to-hell glare and then made one of its patented sprints, disappearing in a ravine.

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