"CSI: Crime Scene Investigators" is one of the most popular television shows on the air.
The premise behind the series involves a crack team of police investigators who work together to solve a variety of murders, robberies, missing persons and similar mysteries.
In the course of my efforts to get youngsters involved in the outdoors and interested in the mysteries of the natural world, I often turn to the concept of making ordinary kids into detectives.
This photo of a toppled tree over a beaver dam is an example of a natural clue that awaits discovery by 'Critter Scene Investigators.'
(Photo — Joe Hackett
It is usually a very easy sell. Children are naturally inquisitive, and the concept of being a natural detective is usually quite easy.
I call the game "CSI: Critter Scene Investigators."
A key component of the investigative process usually requires a ready awareness of natural processes. This is accomplished with keen observation techniques, which often involve binoculars, magnifying lenses and a host of other useful tools such as a measuring tape, crime scene tape to seal off an area and protect the evidence (orange surveyors tape usually does the trick).
I also recommend using a field guide such as "Scats and Tracks of the Northeast" by James C. Halfpenny and Jim Bruchac. Kids have a fascination with "poop," and they really like the concept of using their knowledge of a pile of poop to solve a murder.
The small manual is an excellent resource for track identification, and it is a great tool to be used in combination with "Adirondack Wildlife: A Field Guide" by James M. Ryan. The author is a professor of biology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva.
Our efforts typically begin with the discovery of a body, feathers or fur. We look for clues and evidence which when woven together with other evidence results in a profile of both the perpetrators and the victims.
Surprisingly, most kids are usually more proficient at recognizing the usual suspects than you would think.
I also encourage kids to use a digital camera in the effort to collect evidence which they can later research on the internet.
Bird and animal tracks are best illustrated in the presence of the readily available mediums such as sand, snow or mud, all of which all kids love to play with.
The scene of a crime can present a pretty gory sight, which most kids find grossly fascinating. It is amazing how quickly they'll learn to gather evidence and research the field guides when there is a corpse on the scene. In no time at all, kids will be describing the difference in an animal's gait, or determining the type of animal track in order to develop the profile for a likely suspect.
For the average outdoor traveler, the proactive art of tracking animals has become a lost art. Modern man no longer studies the intimate details of an animal's behavior patterns. We've been removed from the food chain for far too long.
Other than active birders, there are very few people who know how to readily communicate with wild creatures. We know how to talk to our dogs, but the average outdoor traveler no longer needs to know how to communicate with a wild turkey or a red squirrel, unless of course he's attempting to lure it into shooting range.
Experienced hunters learn how to accomplish such tasks, and once they become successful in the art, their knowledge often spreads to other such quarry as ducks, geese, and even whitetail deer.
Just as TV detectives will often gather clues at a local gin joint, "Critter Scene Investigators" must learn where to locate wild watering holes, since all creatures need to wet their whistles, and they need to have something to eat.
When searching for evidence, these are great locations to begin. Both mud and snow help illustrate and highlight the tracks and they serve to fascinate kids. They are happy mediums.
I usually begin the process of a crime search with simple and obvious cases of vandalism. It is often easy to find evidence of where some critter has been making a mess of the local woods, whether they were chewing on trees, removing the bark or disturbing the forest in some other manner.
I also encourage kids to collect evidence with a digital camera and to compare their notes with similar scenes in a sketch book.
I like to provide young detectives with a sketch book that features photographs of typical crime scenes such as midden mounds - the leftovers of a squirrel's meal - or old trees which pileated woodpeckers had damaged while looking for a meal.
Some of the best locations to take children on the search for tracks can be found along muddy shorelines of a pond or on the sandy riverbanks of a stream where turtles roam and mussels or clams are right at home.
I always caution the young detectives to be aware of other tracks that these locations also attract, including bears, raccoons, blue heron and other predators.
Children are naturally inquisitive and they have wonderful imaginations. If provided with the proper tools and a little guidance, they can usually weave some wonderful stories in the process of solving a natural mystery.