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“You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.”

Sherlock Holmes

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Here’s another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of my tracking the stoats in my neighbourhood.  I took a stroll through the field behind my house this evening.  I didn’t see any stoats, and my carefully smoothed patches of loose sand showed no clear tracks.  But I did find something very interesting indeed.  It goes to prove my maxim – ‘there’s always something to see, even when there’s nothing to see’.

What I found was a patch of black feathers, evidently from a crow.

Crow feathers - feeding signThe crow had obviously met a sudden end to have lost this many feathers, presumably from a predator of some sort.  Nothing too unusual there – we have a lot of crows around here.  But can we tell what predator was responsible?

A close look at the feathers gives us a clue.  The quills of many have been bitten off cleanly near the bottom.

Feathers with bitten-off quillsA look through the guidebooks when I got home confirmed my suspicions.  A bird of prey will remove the feathers from a bird that it has killed, but it does so by grasping them in its beak and pulling them out.  The feather gets mangled, but otherwise stays in one piece.  These feathers were bitten off so it was no bird of prey that did this.

Stoat feeding sign on feathersNo, the guidebooks were clear on this point.  Both the Hamlyn Guide and Bang and Dahlstrom agree that bitten-off feathers are the work of a mammal.  According to the Hamlyn Guide ‘Small carnivorous mammals, such as mustelids, bite the feather off so that most of the quill is missing. Larger carnivores pull out mouthfuls of feathers.’  Bang and Dahlstrom go one stage further and have an illustration of a feather that has been bitten off by a stoat (page 159), and it is identical to the ones that I found.  I’m pretty confident based on the guidebooks that a stoat was the culprit here.

Alongside the scats I found the other day, this is more evidence that a stoat  is in residence in this corner of the field.  Sooner or later I’ll catch sight of it.  In the meantime I’m having great fun finding these little signs of its presence.

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