Tracks in the Snow

Picture this: it’s cold, and outside looks like a blanket of white and grey. You may be tempted to stay inside with a cup of hot chocolate and your favorite crime show, but there is still stuff to do outside.

A fun and interesting activity is walking in the woods and trying to identify all the different animal tracks. Many of these animals would be hard to find in other seasons, but in the snow, their footprints are easy to spot.

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Figure 1: Turkey tracks in the snow. Photo courtesy of Huntography http://wisconsin.huntography.com/blog/category/wisconsin-turkey-hunting

Make a scavenger hunt out of it. Take in the stillness of winter. Turn off the sound to your cellphone and just enjoy the silence. If you’re quiet, you are more likely to see more than just tracks. You may see the animal making them.

You can see tracks from wildlife in your own yards and city parks, but some animals can only be found in more natural areas like state and national parks. Do a google search to find the one closest to you. Looking up your state DNR (Department of Natural Resources) website is a great place to start. If you decide to embark on this adventure, I do encourage proper clothing and that you take along a cell phone, but keep it silenced. Your fingers and toes are the most likely to get cold quickly, so along with a good warm coat and scarf, wear thick socks, good boots, and warm mittens or gloves. I also personally recommend long-underwear under your pants. Stay dry, and if you start to feel cold and damp, it’s time to call it a day. If you are interested in taking classes on track identification, they are available. A web search will likely reveal ones close to your area. They are usually held by county conservation groups and have limited seats, so act quickly. One that I found is put on by the Morton Arboretum.

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Figure 2: Bird tracks in the snow. Photo courtesy of Naturally Curious with Marry Holland http://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/bird-tracks-gaits/

So what might you see? You could see the tracks of squirrels, foxes, deer, rabbits, coyotes, raccoons, beaver, muskrats, woodchucks, and possums. If you are really lucky and in the right areas, you might even see bobcat tracks. Oh, to be so fortunate! You might also see some not-so-wild tracks like from domestic cats and dogs too. There is a great PDF guide to mammal tracks in Illinois. Some of the animals listed will be hibernating, but several in this PDF are visible in the winter. Be sure to keep a close eye out for little mammals like mice and voles.

Listed below is some equipment you will want to bring along.

  1. The PDF mentioned above or a field guide of your choosing
  2. A notepad and pencil ( a pen will smear if it gets wet)
  3. Your smartphone and/or camera (bring cellphone if bringing a separate camera)
  4. A lightweight measuring tape
  5. Binoculars (you never know when you will want them)

You won’t just find mammals. You’ll see bird tracks too, like the turkey tracks shown in Figure 1. Smaller birds also make tracks, but due to their small size, their tracks are not as noticeable. Birds like finches, chickadees, and juncos may make tracks in the snow as they eat fallen seeds off of the surface. See an example in Figure 2.

When you are identifying a track consider the following

  1. The size of the track (use your measuring tape)
  2. Are they hoof marks?
  3. Shape and placement of pad marks (very helpful is distinguishing between dogs, foxes, and coyotes)
  4. Do you see any claw marks? (between cats and other mammals)
  5. Number of toes on each foot
  6. Is there webbing between the toes?
  7. Are there marks of a tail or a belly dragging?
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Figure 3: Comparison of coyote, dog, fox, and cat tracks. Image courtesy of Wild Bunch Wildlife Rehabilitation http://www.wildbunchrehab.org/encore/encore-coyote.cfm

Not only look at the tracks themselves but also notice where they go and how deep they penetrate the snow. Tracks by squirrels, mice, raccoons, and other climbing animals may lead to trees or fallen logs. Animals that are lighter in weight, like a possum, are not going to have as deep of tracks as a heavier animal, like a fox. Some tracks that can be easily confused are those of coyotes, foxes, and domestic dogs. Sometimes you can also confuse a bobcat tracks with other large mammals. See Figure 3 for tips on these tricky guys. If you come across something that you simply cannot identify. Take a picture and bring it home with you to identify over some apple cider or hot chocolate. So have fun, explore, stay warm and please share your findings in the comment section below.

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Figure 4: Size comparisons of Cougar and Bobcat tracks. Image courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10370_12145_43573-146656–,00.html

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