After a fresh snowfall, one of my favorite outdoor activities with my daughter is to see who’s been out and about. (If it’s been a heavy snow, I find it’s better to wait a few hours, as many animals will prefer to stay warm and cozy until they’re hungry enough to venture out.)
Some common tracks to find are that of neighborhood cats and dogs (though we hope cats remain indoors for improved quality of life), but you may also discover raccoon, mice, birds, opossums, and perhaps fox or coyote.
Let’s look at some of these prints!
An illustration, while helpful, is never as helpful as getting out there and practicing. Sometimes we simply can’t identify the animal—it helps to know the area, perhaps find scat (feces) or fur that might show what animal track we’re looking at. Sometimes we only have a partial print to base our observations on.
For instance, dogs and coyotes can be difficult to differentiate. Coyote prints have more oblate pads and sharper nails. The gap between the toes and the main pad is usually larger than that of a dog’s. Yet with so many dog breeds abound, it gets tricky.
Well, and then there’s the “Coyote X.” When faced with a track, can you draw an X through the middle, and stay mostly in the negative space? In coyotes, toes 2 and 3 tend to extend beyond toes 1 and 4, leaving plentiful negative space between the pads. Drawing an ‘X’ between the toes, centered in the negative space, is likely easy.
Now, what if it’s a bobcat? It’s easy to distinguish between canine and feline tracks because of one anatomical difference: cats retract their claws. You’ll find canine tracks have little points above each toe. Cats, on the other hand, are identifiable by their pads.
House cats are much smaller than bobcats. Again, notice the lack of a nail track.
Squirrels bound. They land on their forepaws and bracket those tracks with their back paws. Don’t mistake them for bunny tracks, though. You’ll find the toes are like mice or rat toes in shape—they are rodents, after all.
Bunnies also bound, but look at those long footprints. When they hop across the snow, their back legs land ahead of their front legs.
This post is just a start! A brilliant book to have in your nature library is Tracking and the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes. This book will tell you about more than just tracks. You’ll learn about scat, signs of animals browsing, and where animals may be sleeping.
With or without a book, grab your camera, get outside, and take photos! Make your own naturalist notebook with the date, photo, weather and any other interesting notes about the environment. Build up your knowledge by looking around—either for your own benefit or to engage the bright minds of kids in the great outdoors. It’s worth it.