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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 and Snowshoe Hare prints, which are quite similar, but tend not to go from tree to tree. All three 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 and hare almost always lands with front paws in line with the direction of travel (one before the other), while the squirrel never does — they are essentially side by side. 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.