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A way to get large numbers of kids out on the trail is the Maricopa County Parks & Recreation Dept. Desert Critter Scene Investigators program in the Phoenix area.

arrow This project was nominated for a Kids and Trails Award as part of the 2010 National Trails Awards, announced at the 20th National Trails Symposium in Chatanooga, TN


Teaching natural history on Maricopa County trails


The Desert Critter Scene Investigator program, developed by the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department and Phoenix Zoo, focuses on reconnecting youth with nature by having them examine objects and clues left behind by Sonoran desert animals. Unveiled at Cave Creek Regional Park in 2008, the agencies have offered two programs attended by over 120 individuals. The program incorporates a live animal presentation from the zoo with an on trail animal habitat search led by park interpretive rangers.

photo of kids on trail bridge

Ranger happens upon a burrow with youth and points out the clues

The program begins with a thirty-minute animal presentation by the Phoenix Zoo that gets participants ready for the adventure. The presentation includes three native Sonoran desert animals not normally exhibited within the park (i.e., Harris Hawk, gopher snake or a desert tortoise). After the presentation, participants are invited to pet the zoo animals in small groups. Those not petting animals visit the biofacts table and are given the trail rules to prepare for the next phase of the adventure. At this point, the interpretive rangers break the group down into smaller groups (no more than 15 per group) to explore a secret trail in the park looking for clues like bones, tracks and scat.

Along the trail, there are seven to ten stops set-up. Each of these stops includes an area where an animal has either lived or rested and there are signs of this activity. If these areas are not found naturally along the trail, the interpretive ranger creates the area by placing signs that an animal has been there. Signs include things such as a burrow with prickly pear fruit outside of it (tortoise), a snake skin near a hole or signs from other animals such as a bobcat or owl. Each member of the group is then asked to use their powers of observation to determine what animal has been there. Participants receive a Desert C.S.I. animal fact sheet prior to hitting the trail which includes information about each animal. Here is an example of how a main stop is handled:


At a main stop, the group may be asked the question "Who was here?" At this point, the interpretive ranger works with the participants to decipher the clues (large hole/burrow, cactus fruit or pads, shell, scat) and identify the animal using the facts they have on their sheets . Below is a sample of one of the facts from the sheet.

Description: These solitary creatures are well adapted to living in dry desert environments. They derive almost all of their water from the plants that they eat. Their large bladder can store almost half their body weight in water and urine. Estivation (sleeping) in the hottest, driest parts of the summer helps conserve water. Hibernation in the winter enables them to escape cold temperatures. Their fore-legs have long claws used for digging burrows. They have no teeth, but bite off food with sharp-edged, serrated jaws. Desert Tortoises are long lived - they can live up to 80 years. Predators: Coyote, bobcat, cougar, humans. Length: Up to 14 inches. Weight: Up to 15 lbs.

photo of kids on trails

Ranger Jenny happens upon a snake skin and helps the youth determine
what type of snake left the skin behind

Food: Herbivorous diet: grasses and many other plants, including prickly pear fruit and pads.

Tracks: Five toes with pronounced claws in front and hind tracks. Feet are relatively broad.

Scat: Shaped like a small cigar, fibrous.

Habitat: Desert thornscrub and grasslands. They can be found on rocky hillsides and in sandy washes.

Sign: Burrows are shallow and casually made. Their burrow entrance matches the dome-like shape of their shell. They also make use of existing crevices or depressions.

Activity: They can be diurnal or crepuscular, depending on temperature and season. They emerge from their burrows in the summer and then return to them in the fall.

Interesting Facts: Wild desert tortoises often empty their bladder when handled, which can result in death in drier periods when they live off their stored water. When confronted by a predator, they withdraw their head, feet, and tail inside their shell and fold their thick-scaled front knees in front of their head. They are fully protected in the State of Arizona. They have an excellent sense of smell and spend 95% of their life underground. Their shell is made of the same material as our fingernails – keratin. A tortoise hatchling is an inch and a half in length.


In addition to the main stops, each program also has between two and four mini-stops. The mini-stops are set-up similar to the main stops. Each program also includes teaching points and desired outcomes. By the end of the program, youth will have learned:

  1. 1. how to identify the various objects that animals leave behind (scat, tracks, nests, holes, owl pellets, food scraps, feathers, skins, skeletons, etc.), and the animals that leave these objects behind;
  2. 2. interesting facts about desert animals;
  3. 3. nature-based observational skills; and
  4. 4. built a personal connection with the Sonoran desert by experiencing some of its many wonders.

These programs are geared towards youth between the ages of five and ten, and their parents and/or caregivers and addresses two problems faced by today’s youth— a disconnect with nature and a fear of the unknown when it comes to nature. Reconnecting youth with nature through the Desert C.S.I. Programs has enabled youth to become more secure in their surroundings. The interaction between the wildlife and the Sonoran desert has peaked curiosity among youth to learn more and prompted repeat visits to the parks.

While the parks and zoo offer many educational opportunities, this program is unique in the fact that it teaches youth about their surroundings and then probes them to go further in the learning process by having them investigate desert scenes. Articles on the program have been featured in the East Valley Tribune, Arizona Republic and several other publications.


Program Overview

Theme: Desert animals leave behind unique clues that reveal their species and behaviors. By carefully investigating these clues we can discover which animals live in our desert, as well as what they do to survive and thrive in this habitat.

Teaching Points:

Desired Outcomes:

Age Range:

Program Schedule:

Program Format:

Welcome & introduction (done as one large group)

Phoenix Zoo live animal presentations. The animal species presented will be different than the animals that are normally exhibited at that park.

Announcing trail rules & splitting into small groups: Trail rules: Stay behind the ranger. Stay on the trail. Stay together. Stay safe (i.e. keeping our hands away from holes and wild critters). Stay respectful (of animals, clues left on the trail, others around us).

The large group will then be divided into small groups of equal numbers. Groups will be determined in advance based on registrations/family sizes. A county park interpretive ranger will be assigned to lead each small group.

Animal petting & biofacts table for groups #4-7: After each group is formed, groups #1-3 will line up to pet one of the zoo’s program animals, and groups #4-7 will review the biofacts table. Each of the groups #4-7 will be told when they need to line up for the animal petting. This needs to be done in order to stagger launch times to the trail (otherwise bunch-ups will occur at stops along the trail). After the animal petting, each park ranger will guide their group out on the trail.

Trail program: There will be four main stops along the trail, as well as 2-4 mini stops. These stops are not in any particular order as the order will change from park to park. Trail maps for each park (showing the stop locations) will be given to the rangers on the morning of the program. A “dry run” will be performed together before the program start time. Each main stop will take 6-8 minutes, and each mini stop will take 3-5 minutes. Please be conscious of the time limits for each stop. Rangers will need to be very aware of groups ahead of them and behind them, and adjust accordingly, including staying out of view of the other groups.

Main Stops (see “CSI Animal Fact Sheet” for information about each animal):

Mini Stops: (see “CSI Animal Fact Sheet”). Only 2-4 mini stops will be used at each park:

Unstructured return from end of trail & biofacts table for groups #1-3: When returning to the meeting area, each group will stay with their ranger but has the freedom to observe and talk about whatever they want as long as they don’t disturb the other groups or “clues” planted along the trail. Groups #1-3 will review the biofacts table upon their return.

For more information:

Maricopa County Parks &. Rec. Dept., 234 N. Central Avenue, Suite 6400, Phoenix, Arizona 85004
Phone: (602) 506-1114

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