Right on Track
December 29, 2012

Identify signs of an animal's journey

By Fred Durso Jr.
Originally published in AMC Outdoors, November 2008

Do you have what it takes to become an outdoor detective? Some animals brave winter atop a blanket of snow—and leave behind roadmaps to where they’ve headed and clues to what they’ve been doing. It’s up to you to decipher the signs and piece together their story.

According to AMC Senior Interpretive Naturalist Nicky Pizzo, training your inner sleuth isn’t hard. Since snowfall makes animal tracks more prominent, winter is the optimal
season for monitoring an animal’s journey. 

“It’s always exciting to see wildlife, but what’s really fun about tracking is that you figure out that mystery,” she says. “You’re trying to figure out what it was doing, where it went, and what it was looking for.”

While guidebooks identify animals that are prevalent in particular regions, observers need only to examine their backyard or local park. Track trails found here can serve as tutorials for more expansive searches. For example, the prints of squirrels and cottontail rabbits may look similar, but follow the trail closely to see where it ends. If the tracks stop at a tree, it’s likely that the probable trespasser—the squirrel—scurried up the bark.

While conducting wildlife tracking workshops in New Hampshire’s North Country, Pizzo says she begins the journey at birdfeeders. Certain foxes and squirrels enjoy the eats (evident by their tracks).

“It’s fun to know what every [track] is, but it’s more fun to follow them and figure out what it is,” she says.

Watching your dog or cat frolic in the snow provides insight into how other animals maneuver in various types and depths of snow, Pizzo adds.

Avoid sniffing out clues after a snowstorm. “You won’t see many tracks,” Pizzo says. “The best tracking snow is when you have a little bit of crust and a lighter snow on top. That leaves good prints.”

Packing lightly is also key. Bring a camera or sketchpad to photograph or draw unknown prints for later reference. A ruler to measure an animal’s stride is also handy. (For example, when comparing a fox’s stride to a coyote’s, the latter will always be longer.)

Pizzo “backtracks” when she encounters fresh prints, following them in the direction of where the animal was coming from to avoid encountering the animal. “Seeing wildlife…isn’t our goal,” she says. “They wouldn’t act like they normally would if they saw us. They would be reacting to us.”

If you don’t recognize a track, observe the trail’s patterns for clues, particularly from mammals. Red foxes, dogs, cats, and deer are dubbed “walkers” (they walk in a straight line and their hind feet land in the print made by the front feet); weasels are considered “bounders” (they push off with their forefeet and land their hind feet in nearby spots); rabbits, hares, and squirrels are named “hoppers” (they jump off with their hind feet, which touch down first, and the hind feet land ahead of the front prints); and bears, porcupines, and beavers are deemed “waddlers” (slow walkers whose hind feet doesn’t land in the same spot as the front feet).

“If you see that trail, and you follow it out for a bit, eventually it will make one of these four patterns,” Pizzo says.

Practice caution while piecing together the animal’s journey. “I try not to take the same routes day after day so the animals don’t get used to us being there,” Pizzo says. “An animal might alter its hunting area because of our tracks.”

Respect the rules of nature, Pizzo adds, and you’ll be rewarded. Identifying the signs around her, the naturalist was able to decipher a mouse’s demise. After following its trail for a few feet, Pizzo discovered an owl’s wing prints in the snow, she says—“and no more mouse tracks.”



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Introduce your kids to the fun of watching birds and they’ll have a hobby that will last a lifetime, traveling with them whenever they are outdoors.
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