Sunday, February 21, 2010

Reading the Snow with My Dog

Walking with my dog in the snow is a bit like suddenly being able to read Braille, except instead of understanding the little dots that appear in a line on a page, I understand exactly why my dog stops at certain locations and has a long sniff.

There are, of course, the areas that have been stained yellow by some other dog, which are pretty gross. There are also lots of dog paw prints she stops to inspect.

But there’s this other, much more subtle information being gathered, too. Dogs have amazing sniffers, able to receive far more information from their olfactory receptors than humans. I’ve seen the evidence of this all week now, as my dog stops to contemplate the strangest of footprints. I find myself watching her, but I can only guess who might have left them.

We found, for instance, a surprising number of raccoon prints one morning right after the snow had stopped. Like tiny little human hand prints, it was as if we were seeing the marks of little elfin visitors near my neighbors trash cans. Did they get the trash that day, or just got out for a snowy inspection?

Another day we found prints left by my dog’s biggest nemesis, that silly albino cat that lives one street over and stays outside all the time. I only know that those prints came from that cat because we saw them outside the door of the house where White Cat always waits to pounce on my dog in the evenings. I saw my dog bristle, like someone reading angry graffiti when we passed that spot. She paused, scanned the immediate horizon for the cat, and then moved on in a bit of a huff.

The bird prints, strangely, don’t interest my canine companion. I wonder-- is it because birds don’t leave strong smells behind when they hop, or is it because they just are boring to a dog? I know she finds them interesting to watch in the yard. But she flips past the footprints like a tv viewer flipping the fast remote past reruns.

There was one time she found some bird evidence interesting, though. One afternoon late last week we stumbled on to what looked like a wildlife crime scene. Small feathers were spilled in a large circle all around the base of one of the evergreens in our backyard. I scanned the sky for the hawk, but she or he was long gone by this point. We’ve seen that bird of prey often enough the last few months. Once during the peak of the blizzard we even saw it land haphazardly along the chain link fence, trying to gain a talonhold in the blustery winds. Its feathers were magnificent against the white of the snow.

Some people really mind the predator-prey relationship hawks have with the songbirds. I see it as just another link in the food web. I like the hawks as much as the song birds, and more over I think both play a valuable role in the ecosystem. Still, I was curious to know exactly what bird we had lost to the fight this time. I bent close to the snow and tried to figure out what bird had been gobbled up. There was no telling since the feathers were mostly gray and tiny. Maybe it was a mourning dove. Or a titmouse. My dog came and stood next to me, sniffing, too. I longed to have her fill in the missing details, like a fellow detective. It was one of the few times our nonverbal communication seemed inadequate; most of the time we bond pretty well without the need for words. But I really felt as if she knew more about the scene of this crime than I did.

Another day, we came upon evidence that the squirrels had been digging up nuts. They had been in hiding for the first few days after the blizzards, but then had reappeared suddenly one afternoon when the sun began to shine warm again. We then found little brown spots, where the squirrels had dug down into shallower parts of the snow near the trees, where the root zones were bringing up warm geothermal heat and the snow was beginning to thin out. Somehow, despite the sameness of the white blanket that covered everything, those little animals had located their winter stashes and been able to dig them out of the saturated ground, evidence, it seemed to me, that things were beginning to thaw out and soften up a bit under all that snow. A hopeful sign.

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