This was the first real storm of the season; no light dusting here.
The barometric pressure had been dropping all the previous day. Tucked
away underground the chipmunk, asleep with tail wrapped around its
body, was unconcerned and unaware of the elements above. Most ground
squirrel species hibernate for the winter, only partially stirring
from their slumber on the warmest days.
The woodchuck, or groundhog, was also cozily slumbering in its den.
But above ground, the animals could sense the change in weather and
had been feeding hard. Morning light was welcome, revealing several
inches of winter magic, and stories were about to be discovered. All
across the landscape were intricate designs any artist would be proud
The long narrow tunnels made by meadow voles, approximately 1 ¼”
wide and more prominent in the snow than in grass, are their relatively
safe super highways to new grassy feeding areas. But with luck, the
movement of the little beast can be seen, and the sharp eyes of a
hawk are always looking for an easy meal!
Over here are familiar tracks — two long oval ones (2 ¾”)
in front of two small ones (7/8”), but the front tracks are
the hind feet. Rabbits have a “galloping gait” which puts
hind feet ahead of front feet. Our cottontails bound to three feet,
but snowshoe hares in the more northern climes have larger feet and
their running gait can reach seven feet.
Coyote or fox? Both have the same dog-type print: four toes, claws
showing and a heel pad. The front paws are larger than the rear, and
both animals can leave a wandering, zig-zag trail as they check out
a tiny noise here under the snow, a smell there, but the smaller fox
has dainty feet.
The red fox track shows a transverse, arched, raised bar protruding
from the hair of the heel pad. All cat tracks are similar to canine
tracks; however, claw marks are not visible.
Many of us have put our index and middle fingers in the V-shaped
print of the deer. Galloping white-tailed deer use a “rocking
horse gait” in which the hind feet swing far ahead of the front
foot tracks (mule deer run much differently with a bouncing ball action,
all four feet coming down together).
Why are hoofed animals swift? Not only because of their long legs,
but because they run on their toes. White-tailed deer have a running
stride of six to nine feet. Then there are droppings / scat! What
have they been eating? What color are they? Do you see berries, fur,
seeds, little bones? Animals need the minerals in bone, and elongated
white scat may be coyote that has consumed some bone. Numerous little
round pellets could be rabbit while slightly oval ones could be deer
deposit. Is there a trailing tail mark? It could be made by a muskrat
or a mouse.
Bird tracks are fun and they leave you guessing. Do the tracks indicate
hopping or walking? Perching birds mostly hop when on the ground,
leaving paired prints. The great horned owl is an exception and walks.
Game birds such as pheasant, turkey and others that spend much time
on the ground like the robin and crow walk, and their tracks are alternate.
Are the feet webbed? If you’re sure the animal is not a beaver,
it could be a waterfowl. Sometimes wing or tail marks will show in
How do you tell the difference between a turkey track in the mud
along a pond edge and a sandhill crane’s when you know both
are in the area? Each is large, 4” long and three-toed; however,
crane prints will be smooth-toed while turkey toes are coarse and
“creased”. Great horned owl prints (2 ½”
long) and barred owl (2 ¼”) in the snow are quite different
from other bird tracks their size; three toes show prominently but
one is quite a bit shorter and points inward, almost like a thumb.
On the wintry day of January 30, 1841, Henry David Thoreau wrote
in his journal: “I know which way a mind wended this morning,
what horizon it faced, by the setting of those tracks; whether it
moved slowly or rapidly, by the greater or less intervals and distinctness,
for the swiftest step leaves yet a lasting trace.”