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Making Tracks!

Critter Tracks in the Snow

By Doug Collicutt (Click links for more images.)
Tracks in snow

You're out for a walk on a winter's day and encounter a set of animal tracks in the snow. You don't see any animals around you at that moment. Your curiosity is piqued. What animal made those tracks? What was it doing, where was it going? Curiosity is natural for us humans, everyone loves a mystery. And what could be more mysterious than the tell-tale signs of an unseen presence! Signs that a wild thing was here! So, maybe it was just a squirrel or the neighbour's cat, but how would you know if you don't know what a squirrel or a cat track looks like? How many times have you found strange markings in the snow and wondered what made them? Well, don't you think it's about time you learned to recognize some of the signs that Mother Nature leaves out for you? We do. So, we've prepared this introduction to the tracks of some of Manitoba's common critters. This is far from a complete guide, but it's enough to get you started. We decided to stick to mammals, for now, but we'll probably update this article and put in some bird tracks in the future.

For more information on animal tracks, pick up a copy of the Peterson Field Guide: A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, by Olaus J. Murie. And check out our Class Room Section, we've included some suggestions for some tracks-in-the-snow activities.

Getting Started

The two questions that usually come to mind when you first find a set of animal tracks are: "What animal made these tracks?" and "What was it dong?" The first question usually has a definitive answer, but answering the second often requires an educated guess! Let's examine how to answer both these questions.

"What Animals Made These Tracks?"

Identifying the animal that made a particular set of tracks can be easy or hard, depending on the size and quality of the imprints (for obvious reasons), and the kind of animal that made them. And by this I mean that some animals have very distinctive tracks, there's no mistaking their shape and/or size. But other animals have lots of close relatives with very similar tracks, making it hard to tell them apart. For example, raccoon tracks are unmistakable, provided you have a clear print. Raccoons are the only member of the Procyonidae (raccoon family) found in Manitoba and their long-toed prints look like no other animal in its size range.

The suffix "idae" is used to indicate a taxonomic grouping called a "Family", animals that are clearly related to each other. For example: foxes, coyote, wolf and dogs are clearly members of the dog family, the Canidae.

On the other hand, the Mustelidae (weasel family) has 9 members in Manitoba (*), all with fairly similar paw prints and gaits. There is a great deal of overlap in the sizes of these animals and their feet, all the way from the tiny least weasel to the very large wolverine. A large least weasel is close in size to a small short-tailed weasel. A big short-tailed weasel is about the size of a small long-tailed weasel. A large long-tailed weasel is about as big as a small mink, and so on, and so on. Often, all that you can tell is that a set of tracks came from a small, medium or large member of this family.

* Formerly, there were 10 members of the Mustelidae in Manitoba, but recent DNA testing has revealed that the Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) belongs in a separate family, the Mephitidae.

If the shape and size of a paw print is not enough to let you identify the animal then you can analyze the arrangement of a series of prints for more clues. This may be particularly important if the impressions in the snow are poor, so that the shape is not clearly defined. And there are some animals for which the arrangement of their prints is more telling than the shape of an individual print. Rabbits and squirrels are good examples of this. Rabbit tracks are usually one of the first kinds of tracks that people come to recognize and this is partly because they have such a distinct pattern. They tend to keep this pattern whatever speed they are travelling at, too. It just gets stretched out the faster they move. Most animals, however, change their gait as they change speeds, adding to the difficulty in identifying their tracks.

Here's a typical rabbit track (with a lens cap for scale). There are 4 paw prints, all from one hop. The two larger prints, at the top and right of the picture are from the hind feet, while the smaller two are the front feet. Notice how the hind feet are placed side-by-side, perpendicular to the direction of movement. The front feet are placed in-line, parallel to the direction of motion. Rabbits almost always hop, or bound, when they move, no matter what speed they are moving. They push off with their hind feet and land first on their front feet. The front feet pull the body forward slightly so that the hind feet come to rest ahead of the front feet imprints, ready to make another large bound. Squirrels also travel mainly by hopping, but they display one major difference that makes their tracks distinguishable from rabbits. They place their front feet side-by-side rather than in-line.

A complicating factor in interpreting animal tracks is assessing the particular gait the animal was using. An animal's "gait" is its manner of walking or moving. Walk, trot, run, gallop, hop, bound are examples of gaits. Different gaits will result in quite different arrangements of prints in a set of tracks. Typically, you become familiar with the most-used gait of any species and it's easy to become confused when you encounter tracks that represent a different gait. Fox tracks are almost always a neat line of alternating left and right side paw prints as the animal trots along at a steady pace, placing its hind paws right into the print left by the front paw. Actually, this is typical of most animals that display a walking or trotting gait, the hind feet are placed where the respective front foot landed. In this way the animal is assured that it's hind foot lands in a safe, and in winter, pre-compacted, spot. It also reflects the symmetry of motion of the front and hind legs in the waling and trotting gaits. A fox at high speed (see Tracking Guide) uses a gallop and pushes off strongly with its hind feet close together and its fore feet placed in line, much more like a stretched-out rabbit track.

Where you are, geographically, and the kind of habitat you're in also can help determine which species' tracks you're looking at. Bear tracks in southern Manitoba are definitely going to be from a black bear. But up near the coast of Hudson's Bay you would have to look more closely to distinguish a black bear print from a small polar bear. A medium sized weasel-type track near a river or lake is likely to be a mink. A similar sized track in a mature spruce forest far from water is more likely to be a marten. You need to be aware of what kinds of animals to expect in a given habitat or region, otherwise it may be difficult knowing what made a particular set of tracks.

"What was the animal doing?"

Knowing the kind of animal that made a set of tracks is one thing. Trying to figure out what the animal was doing is something quite different. In one sense you really don't need to know what animal made the tracks to figure out what it might have been doing. Any time you find tracks you know one thing for sure. An animal was going from one place to another. That may sound a little obvious, but it is the first step in a series of assumptions you make on the way to your interpretation of what that animal was doing. And if you really want to know what the animal was doing, follow the tracks for a while. The more of the trail you see, the more likely you are to figure out what was going on.

Tracking Tip #1: Never listen to anyone who tells you that he/she is absolutely positive about what an animal was doing, based on its tracks. The best trackers will always talk cautiously about their observations, suggesting several options, never talking in absolutes. This is invariably beccause they've been humbled in the past by excessive and incorrect pronouncements!

Recent Snow History

Knowing when the most recent snowfall occurred will give you clues as to when the tracks were made. It let's you figure out the maximum age of a set of tracks, at least. How old the tracks are can give you some insight into what the animal was doing. For example: You're out tracking at first light. You know that it snowed sometime overnight and you find some fresh tracks. Chances are, that animal, whatever it was, was moving around at night; that is, it's nocturnal.

Tracking Trip #2: If you regularly walk on a particular path looking for tracks, use your hand or a branch to mark or rub out the tracks you find each time. That way, the next time you're by you'll know chich tracks and what animals have been around since your last walk.

Determining Direction

Figuring out which way an animal was headed is pretty important. It let's you interpret the "time-line", or series of events that the tracks represent. If you can make out the shape of the print, the toes or claws will point in the direction of motion. Sometimes the characteristic arrangement of the prints will tell you. With rabbit tracks it's easy to see where the animal was headed, even from a distance. However, it is not always obvious, from a set of tracks, which way the animal was headed. In deep snow many animals resort to a bounding motion. Their bodies can leave scrape marks as they enter and exit the snow on each bound and the deep snow often obscures the actual prints. The overall track may look quite symmetrical, with respect to direction of movement. In such a case, examine the surface of the snow around the track. There should be more snow heaped up on the side of the track in the direction the animal was heading; as it bounds forward it carries some snow with it.

Tracking Tip #3: Look for snow dragged forward to indicate the direction of movement.

How Fast?

Determining how fast an animal was going, relatively speaking, is not too difficult. Actually, there are some mathematical relationships that have been discovered that allow you to estimate an animal's speed, based on the size of its tracks and the distance between sets of prints. But for basic interpretation all you need to remember is that for most gaits, the greater the distance between the sets of paw prints, the faster the animal was moving. And, whatever the gait employed, the pattern of the prints will also tend to be more stretched out as speed increases (jackrabbit at moderate speed).

So, what does "how fast?" tell you? It could be plenty, or it might not tell you anything. Just remember, though, most wild animals don't waste energy, especially in winter. If they're moving fast, it's for a good reason. If a squirrel or snowshoe hare has to cross a forest clearing or a road, it will go quickly to avoid becoming owl or fox food. Deer don't waste their precious reserves of body fat by running unless they are fleeing danger. And predators, like foxes or wolves, will keep to an even trot to conserve energy as they cover large distances in search of prey. A galloping wolf is chasing something or being chased!

Type of Trail

The nature of the trail left by an animal can tell you a lot, too. Tracks in a straight line, with little veering, suggest the animal was deliberately heading from point "A" to point "B". A meandering trail, with occasional "stops", suggests searching, perhaps for food or other commodities. A well-worn path in the snow suggests that one or more animals are using the same route over and over.

Other Tracks

If other tracks of the same or of different species are found near a particular set of tracks, it is tempting to suggest that the different animals were interacting. But be careful, do you have enough evidence to say whether it was one animal making several trips back and forth, or in a circle, or a group of animals travelling together? If two or more species have left tracks nearby, can you be sure they were there at the same point in time? Remember you need to be objective about your analyses.

Other Signs

There can be other "signs" associated with a set of tracks that can let you know what was going on. Bits of food, scrapes or holes, droppings or scats (poops) are examples of other signs. Squirrel tracks leading to a hole in the snow, with bits of acorn husk scattered around suggests that a squirrel retrieved and ate an acorn. Drops of blood on a weasel's trail suggests it was carrying some recently caught prey.

Tracking Tip #4: Keep a record of the type and relative number of tracks you find in a given area. Measure and record print sizes and draw pictures of print shapes. Record-keeping will make you a better tracker. And someone else is far more likely to believe that you did find cougar tracks when you haul out your book with measurements and drawings. Photos are a good idea, too.

In Closing

So, to sum up, to identify animal tracks you have to recognize characteristic shapes and arrangements of prints (gaits), and relate that to habitat and geography. Figuring out what an animal was doing requires a little more imagination and intuition, plus some experience. Also, I hope I've impressed upon you that track identification is not a precise science. Like any outdoor skill, it requires practice and experience to develop. So, take a little time to study our guide to tracks, then go outside and get tracking!

Tracking Tip #5: If you have a dog, don't bring it along if you want to study animal tracks! The dog will usually find the tracks first and be more interested in them than you are. Then it will tromp all over the tracks, obliterating them!

Carry on for A Mystery Solved!

Or you can jump right to our guide to critter tracks:

NatureNorth's Tracking Guide

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