A white dog sniffs a patch of yellow snow

A Pee-culiar Winter Who-Dunnit

My dog sprinted to a huge patch of yellow snow.

Spots and splotches covered an area about six feet wide. While Finley sniffed, I surveyed the stained snow clinging to branches above.

We both seemed intent on solving a mystery: Who sprinkled all that tinkle?

Was it other dogs? Not unless a whole pack had peed together—highly improbable.

Birds? Nope. They don’t pee, per se. Their urine mixes with their feces and comes out as gloppy goo. (I once filmed a Bald Eagle lifting its tail feathers for just that purpose. If you’d like to see an awesome stream of eagle excrement, here’s a link to that blog post.)

So, I wondered: If not dogs or birds, could woodland mammals have let loose from the trees?

We have tons of squirrels roaming our woods. They spray urine to mark territory.

But to leave so many stains and sprinkles would require an impossibly large number of squirrels squaring off for some kind of territorial rumble.

Porcupines, maybe? I once read about a person being peed on by a porcupine perched high in a tree. The prickly critters don’t hibernate, but they tend to be solitary animals. It doesn’t seem likely that one or even two porcupines had peed so profusely.

The morning air was frigid, so Finley and I returned home. At least one of us was still puzzled by all that pee.

That afternoon, we returned to the pee patch. The sun had come out and warmed the trees. The branches’ snow clumps had started to melt.

And all I could do was laugh at myself when I saw what solved the puzzle:

Those cones are the seed-bearing catkins of the alders growing above the ‘pee’ patch. They’re unusual, in that alders are deciduous, not evergreen trees. The cones remain on the tree all winter. They’re loaded with tannins. The branches’ melting snow clumps carry those tannins to the ground. On our early morning walk, everything was still frozen. Finley and I had simply stumbled upon evidence of the prior afternoon’s solar warm-up.

So, it was the cones that peed on stained the snow and sent my imagination soaring. Six feet of snow sprinkled with critter pee? Finley should have told me I was barking up the wrong tree. 

Resources and Related Kids’ Books

You can learn about bird pee in this Live Science article: https://www.livescience.com/do-birds-pee

In case you’re curious about porcupines peeing from trees, I was able to locate what I’d read about that. Here’s the link. https://www.explore-mag.com/warning-porcupines-will-pee-on-your-head-if-threatened

Alder trees are quite interesting, too. Here’s a link to a very thoughtful article: https://www.treesforcities.org/stories/intreeducing-the-alder-a-super-hero-tree-pioneer

For the kids, I want to share two terrific picture books by Buffy Silverman. They’re part of her series about the seasons. Both are written in rhyme and are super fun to read, with spectacular photo illustrations. The two I’m featuring here are about winter and spring. A third is about fall, and I’m hoping we’ll see a summer book soon.

This book is about what we observe in Nature during the winter. Not only do we see flakes flying, but also feather-fluffing and lots of other winter wonders. What a great way to help kids understand and want to explore winter.

If you read this book to kids during a late winter warmup, they’ll want to run outside and search for the book’s drip-droppy, slip-sloppy, snow-melting signs of spring. The book reminds us that it’s not just humans who experience Nature’s seasonal changes. I thoroughly enjoyed reading lines like ‘On a hawk-squawking, paw-sinking, woods-walking day.’ I highly recommend all of Buffy Silverman’s books about the seasons.

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

4 thoughts on “A Pee-culiar Winter Who-Dunnit”

  1. Good one, Carol! And nice to see the recommendation for all of Buffy’s books (I agree). Out here in Sun City, we are getting lows all the way down to the forties! 😉

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