We often see animal tracks but do we really know the story they’re trying to tell us? There are lots of clues to watch out for, let’s look at a few of them. Animal tracks are easy to detect but not always easy to identify. All mammals and birds can and will leave tracks in the snow, as they go about foraging for food. These tracks can tell us much about what the animal was doing, but identifying the tracks can be tricky. You need to consider the possible species, habitat, the size of the track, the pattern, the length of the stride and more. If it is a quadruped, a four-legged animal, you will see four prints, but don’t always assume the front two come from the front feet, as many animals swing their hind legs in front of the forepaws when travelling. Many good books, such as Peterson’s A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, can help identify what you see. Several phone apps are also available now to assist. You can do a search on ‘animal tracks’ in your app store. One I have used is iNaturalist which does way more than just identify animal tracks. It will also help with plant, insect and animal ID and much more! Now, how do you go about figuring out what you saw? I like to take photos of what I observe, if I’m not sure of the species, and sometimes I make field notes and then take those home to do my research. I try not to simply upload them to an app and ask someone else to identify them because I find I don’t learn that way. But once I’ve exhausted my resources and still can’t figure it out, then I will post on something like iNaturalist or on a nature club’s Facebook page and ask for an expert to help. Naturalists, such as those in a local nature club, are very generous with their time and will usually freely assist. Okay, so now that you’ve figured out what you saw, why not spend a bit of time deciphering what they were doing? If you see complex overlapping tracks in a small area, then presume many critters were there for some longer period of time feeding. Birdfeeders are a great spot to see this type of activity. A single track leading off into the distance might indicate a coyote or fox wandering through its territory looking for food. Were there two sets of tracks paralleling each other? Perhaps a pair of foxes was travelling together, mates or siblings will do this. But what if the track suddenly ends with no indication of where the animal went? Several things could be happening here. It could be a bird that just flew away, or maybe an aerial predator grabbed it for lunch or maybe it’s still there?! Ruffed Grouse will roost under the snow on cold nights, so maybe our mystery bird just burrowed into the snow. You will assuredly know if this is true, as it will explode out of the snow at your feet if you’re fortunate. What if the length of the stride suddenly changes? This usually indicates something startled the animal. A car or predator or even one of us can force them to flee and the length of the stride will clearly show that. Is there a bird wing pattern on the fresh snow? This may indicate several things, but foremost it tells us a bird landed or took off from that spot. It generally only works well on fresh snow and often a beautiful imprint of most or all of the wing feathers can be seen. The bird may simply have been landing in deeper snow so its wing touched the ‘ground’ or maybe a predator was swooping in and hit prey using its wings for balance. Well that’s a start, next time I would like to continue the exploration of animal signs and how to read them.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.