These chilly, snowy days of January are great for reading. You can head to your public library, but books aren’t the only places where you’ll find an interesting story this time of year. Plenty of tales are told outside in the snow, written by the creatures who inhabit Wisconsin’s woodlands, wetlands, and prairies. To enjoy their stories, you just need to understand the language that emerges from their tracks.
(All photos are courtesy of Emily Stone, Cable Natural History Museum)
The ancient art of animal tracking—practiced all over the world for crucial purposes such as hunting or detecting danger—is also simply a fun way for the whole family to learn about Wisconsin’s wildlife and enjoy the great outdoors. It’s especially fun in the wintertime when every snowfall opens up a blank page for creatures to scurry across and leave a new message. Learning to identify the various footprints can make a walk through the snow more interesting; however, just as there’s more to a book than a single word, there’s more to animal tracking than a single footprint.
“I like to think about tracking as a type of reading,” said Emily Stone, a naturalist at the Cable Natural History Museum, in Bayfield Electric Cooperative’s area. “A single track is like a letter, and then a whole trail of many footprints in a row is the word, and then if you follow it long enough you’ll see a track pattern. And then you have the whole story when you add the habitat and the trail and everything else that’s going on around the tracks.”
Animal tracking is one of many different wildlife classes Stone teaches to people of all ages in her role as education director at the museum. She also frequently weaves the topic into her award-winning “Natural Connections” columns, the best of which have been compiled into two published books.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, the museum and its on-site programs are currently closed, but animal tracking, fortunately, has a safe and accessible classroom that’s close to home, wherever that may be. As Stone points out, there’s plenty to learn from the animal tracks in your own backyard. Venture a little farther into the trails of your local county or state park and you’ll find even more stories to uncover.
“Ski trails are actually a great place to do your tracking because they get groomed after a fresh snowfall. That creates a blank slate and keeps the snow from getting so deep and fluffy that the tracks just disappear,” Stone said. “And animals often use our trails, too, because paths make moving through the woods easier no matter how many legs you have.”
Also, animal tracking doesn’t require any special equipment or costly tools. Stone recommends bringing a ruler to measure the size of footprints and a cell phone or camera so you can take photos. This is especially helpful if you need to do a little more research after your trek to figure out exactly what you found. Other than that, just dress warm and adjust your mindset to detective mode, as Stone said animal tracking is a bit of a guessing game for even the most experienced trackers.
The Toes are Telling
When learning to identify an animal print, Stone suggested a good way to start is by counting the toes.
“A lot of the mammals that we think about—the bobcats, and the foxes, coyotes, and wolves—they have four toes just like our dogs do,” she said.
Still, there are clear differences in the prints made by the various groups of four-toed creatures. Feline prints, Stone explained, are distinctive for their four offset toes, shaped in a bit of a C pattern around the heel pad. A feline heel pad is also unique; it has three little dips at the top and three lobes at the bottom. All felines share these characteristics, Stone said, only domestic cat prints are smaller than those of wild cats.
Also, because felines have retractable claws to keep them sharp for tree climbing, they won’t leave claw marks with their footprints unless there’s a reason for them to have their claws extended, like if the surface is very slippery.
Canines, Stone explained, have four toes, with a very slight closure between the two middle toes and a wider opening between the two toes on the left and the two on the right, forming a distinct X shape across the footprint. Canines will also leave slight claw marks at the tops of their footprints. And while all canine prints will have the telltale X, it’s possible to determine which tracks in the backyard came from your pet dog and which came from a fox or coyote passing through, as wild dogs have a more rectangular print, Stone said, while most house dogs have a rounder print.
Members of the weasel family, including fishers, badgers, and otters, have five toes. Birds leave easily identifiable prints as well. Most birds have three toes in front and one in back, although the back toe doesn’t always leave a mark. Wild turkeys leave a three-pointed arrow shape in the snow. Grouse leave small cross-shaped prints that are easily identifiable even in fluffy snow because their feet act as snowshoes and keep them on the surface.
Straddle, Slide, and other Signs
If the snow is too fluffy to clearly identify all the toes, Stone said to look for other identifying characteristics such as the “straddle,” which refers to the space between the left-side footprints and the right-side prints. Felines—both domestic and feral—have very narrow straddles.
“There’s almost no differentiation between the right foot and the left foot and where it is from the middle,” Stone pointed out. “If you draw a line down a bobcat trail you’ll hit all of the footprints. It’s mostly a straight line, with just a little bit of offset.”
Wild dogs, she added, also have narrow straddles, although most domestic dogs’ straddles are much wider.
In other mammals, the track pattern is more telling than the toe count. Hoppers, including cottontail rabbits, snowshoe hares, squirrels, and deer mice, have distinctive track patterns due to the way they move.
Unlike felines, canines, and deer, all of which carry more of their body weight in front and therefore have larger front feet, hoppers’ bigger hind feet hold the most power. When they leap, Stone explained, they land on their front feet and their hind feet come around the sides to push them off again, putting their larger back footprints in front.
The footprints can also reveal where the hoppers live. Squirrels, with their front feet positioned close together, are known as paired front foot hoppers, which means they spend much of their time in trees, Stone explained. Deer mice are also paired front foot hoppers, an indication that they too are excellent tree climbers. Rabbits and hares, on the other hand, are diagonal front foot hoppers, with feet that are offset from each other. This indicates they spend most of their time on the ground.
Toe counts aren’t necessary to identify otters, either. The webbing between their five toes may leave a noticeable outline from toe to toe, but otters also make their mark in the snow by sliding across it, with their arms held back along their sides.
“They’ll run a few steps to get some momentum and then they’ll flop down on their bellies,” Stone explained. “So their pattern is run, run, run, slide.”
Sliding otter marks might very well lead you to water, as otters are more likely to appear near the lakes where they fish and play. However, Stone said they travel widely between lakes so you can still find sliding otter tracks in the woods. “They will slide downhill toward a lake but they can slide level and even uphill,” she said.
Other animals that are more easily identified by their track patterns than their toes are the rodents like mice, voles, and shrews. These small mammals, Stone said, are very active in the winter, but because they burrow under the snow to look for seeds, hide from predators, and stay warm, they’re more likely to leave marks of their full body as they tunnel beneath the snow.
When the snow is shallow enough for rodents to leave footprints, each type makes its own distinctive marks. Mice have bigger back feet; they tend to hop, so their front and back footprints are close together and their longer tails drag a line in the snow between the footprints. Voles, on the other hand, walk more like a dog, with their rear feet stepping into the tracks of the front feet, leaving diagonal footprints that can look a bit like a tiny human’s. Also, voles’ short tails don’t leave drag marks.
Deer trails are also common in backyards and parks. Most Wisconsinites are likely familiar with the heart-shaped pattern of a deer hoof, but there are other signs to look for that tell a greater story. For example, Stone said hooves that are splayed apart in the print are a sign the surface was somewhat slippery. In very deep snow the dewclaws, which are the two toes that appear higher up on a deer’s ankle, might be visible. If the snow is shallow yet there’s still a slight depression from a dewclaw, that may indicate the deer was moving very fast, Stone said.
These little signs that can tease out extra details make animal tracking more of a detective game. For example, if you see squirrel prints, look to the nearest tree to try to determine if the squirrel was coming or going. Stone explained a squirrel will leave a depression in the snow as it belly flops to the ground from a tree. This sitzmark-like depression will be the first track in a particular pattern as the squirrel shakes off the snow and hops away. On the other hand, a short distance between the track and the tree indicates the squirrel ran toward the tree and began climbing.
Track patterns along a trail or roadway can also show you when an animal began speeding up. In cruising speed, Stone said, an animal’s hind feet will land where the front feet picked up, and as the animal’s speed increases, the hind feet will eventually overtake the front feet.
You might also see signs of a gallop in canine or feline tracks, with four footprints registering at once in a slight C shape, then a little gap as all four feet are in the air at once, and then another set of four prints. Additional signs along the trail or roadway, such as broken twigs or footprints of another animal, may offer some clues as to what triggered the sudden burst of speed.
Follow the tracks off the trail and you’ll likely find more clues to tell you what an animal might have been doing.
Rabbit or hare tracks might lead to an evergreen tree or brush pile where the animal was taking shelter. You might see that the animal has made several runs to the same shelter, creating a scent path for easy get-away if a predator is near.
You also might find evidence that the animal didn’t make it to shelter. Birds of prey leave wing marks in the snow as they swoop down to capture their food and then beat hard with their wings to launch themselves back into the sky.
Tracks can tell you if the predator had a successful hunt; rabbit or hare tracks might end abruptly behind the wing marks of an owl. Study the tracks to see if there are retreating prints overlaid, indicating the animal might have made it back to cover.
Clustered tracks of multiple creatures can indicate a variety of behaviors. Stone explained that many animals leave scent marks with urine or scat to mark their territory or maybe leave information for potential mates. Their targeted areas, Stone said, tend to be elevated clumps of dirt or perhaps a small tree because the scent travels farther when it’s deposited up higher. If you spot several different animal tracks approaching such a spot, it could be a scent mound that’s attracted attention from nearby animals.
“They’re just looking at the bulletin board in the neighborhood,” Stone said.
That bulletin board is meant for animals, of course, but with a little sleuthing you can learn to read some of it yourself. You might be surprised at the stories you’ll find there. —Mary Erickson
The Cable Natural History Museum is located at 13470 County Hwy. M, Cable, WI 54821 (phone: 715-798-3890). It’s currently closed to the public due to COVID-19, but offers multiple online learning resources on its website, cablemuseum.org.