Nature Guides

Track This!

Mid-February 2012

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Featured Process: Tracks and Tracking 

As temperatures begin to moderate and animal activity picks up, now is probably the best time to get out and search for, identify and interpret animal tracks and signs in the snow or mud.  Even a trip to the dumpster can turn a class into a CSI unit piecing together clues of events that may have occurred only hours before.  Did the early bird get the worm, or was it nailed by a cat, or perhaps a hawk or an owl?  Here’s a good guide for kids to tracks and signs, including a simple key, and here are some photos of common animal tracks.


A good place to start is with our good friend, the squirrel.  As you might expect, squirrels leave veritable highways that generally run from tree to tree.  That’s one of the best ways of telling them from Eastern Cottontail Rabbit prints, which are quite similar, but tend not to go from tree to tree.  Both animals gallop, which means that they move both front feet together, and then both back feet, often landing with the back feet in front of the front feet, as in the rabbit track above.  The rabbit’s back feet are somewhat larger, but the best way to tell isolated prints apart is that the rabbit almost always lands with its front paws in line with the direction of travel (one before the other), while the squirrel never does.  Deer Mice also gallop, while voles walk or trot along


 Dogs, coyotes and wolves can be hard to tell apart, but behaviour plays a role.  Coyotes and wolves almost always register.  That is, the rear paw is placed exactly in the print left by the front paw (saves energy), leaving a single line of tracks .  Dogs often miss, leaving a double track  here and there.  Also, unless following a scent, coyotes and wolves want to get from here to there with the least amount of energy, which is a straight line.  Dogs, knowing that the next meal will be there, will tend to wander all over the place.  Members of the dog family tend to have oval prints that show claw marks, while cat  family prints are more round, and don’t show claws.


Deer may or may not register, and tend to drag their feet like teenagers.  The prints are heart-shaped, with the deer traveling in the direction of the point.  In soft snow or mud, or if the animal is moving quickly, the track may splay out, and dew claw marks seen at the rear of the track.  Moose tracks are larger, more oval, and moose pick up their feet more.  Of course, in this kind of snow, no one picks up their feet!  Note also that as the snow melts, tracks will enlarge and look bigger.


But the most fun is piecing together the action.  Whether it’s obvious , or not quite so obvious, you can picture in your mind’s eye what we almost never get to see.  Here is a CSI: Critter Scene Investigation lesson to try out.


Other Happenings: 

  • Well, six groundhogs, including Wiarton Willie, have predicted an early spring, while one is calling for six more weeks of winter.  Let’s see what happens.
  • Monarch butterfly newsletters have begun on the Journey North website, and will continue throughout the spring migration.  Tune in and prepare for the journey north beginning in March.  Consider joining so that you can report your sightings.  Other species you can track and report on include the American Robin and two hummingbirds, including our Ruby-throated .
  • Horned Larks are one of the first birds to return from the south, and can be found hanging out with Snow Buntings along roadsides and on fields.  They will sing in flight.
  • Male skunks  are starting to look for mates.  A whiff of skunk on a damp winter’s night is one of the first smells of spring – one spray can be smelled over 6 square kilometres, and contains chemicals used to make WW I mustard gas! 
  • Burbot, a freshwater member of the cod family, are mating under the ice, moving across the bottom in a writhing mass of about a dozen fish.  Fertilized eggs are left behind to fend for themselves.
  • The increase in daylight is very noticeable now.  We’ve gained more than an hour since Winter Solstice.  Shadows are getting shorter, and the sun’s just a bit closer.  More importantly, it has to cut through less atmosphere, and it’s rays are spread over less area.  So you will see snow melting on sunny days, even in below-zero temperatures.
  • This winter remains one of the best for viewing planets in recent memory.  All five visible planets will be in the sky at some point in February, with four during reasonable viewing hours.  Venus continues to climb in the evening sky while Jupiter dips along the ecliptic, heading towards a spectacular conjunction in March.  We will be there.