by Christine Hanrahan

Identifying tracks is a good way to discover who is living in a particular woodland, field, or along a water body. Tracks in mud, sand, and snow also tell stories. You can see where animals, and sometimes birds, have interacted, perhaps to the misfortune of one of them. If you follow them, you may be able to detect what they were doing, where they were looking for food, whether they were meandering along investigating here or there, or whether they had a purpose – no dawdling and sidetracking permitted. Fresh snow is excellent for finding tracks, and winter reveals the presence of all sorts of birds and animals we might rarely see because they are secretive and/or nocturnal.

Red Fox tracks across the frozen pond

Be aware, however, that tracks in deep snow can look different than those left in light snow, mud, or sand. Deep snow can make tracks appear larger than they really are – although when it’s very deep it can make them look smaller! Other clues can be found in placement of front and rear feet and gait (hopping, running, loping, walking, bounding, trotting, etc) – far too much detail to go into here, but covered well, and often extensively, in the sources listed below.

To figure out what you are seeing, you will need to take along a ruler or measuring tape, a notebook to record your observations, and a camera to take photos not only of the tracks, but of the surrounding area, for habitat is, of course, a very good indicator of what animals to expect and helps narrow down what may have made the puzzling tracks. Many tracks will be baffling, defying identification. Similar species make similar tracks. Photographing tracks that you have seen an animal make, helps immensely for future identification.

In addition to tracks, there are other indications of an animal’s presence in an area.

  • Scat is a good clue, although it may be perplexing at times to decide who made those little, and not so little, piles.
  • Often animals will show their presence through their eating habits. Moose strip the bark from young Red Maples, porcupines chew bark on trees, mostly high up, but sometimes at ground level, Snowshoe Hare and Cottontail Rabbits chew branches closer to the ground, beaver have a very distinctive way of felling trees, etc.
  • Some mammals make readily identifiable nests, such as grey squirrels’ leafy dreys and red squirrels’ big grassy “balls” in trees. Others make temporary snow tunnels, or holes in iced-over water bodies. Others use cavities, hollow logs, or rock piles as dens, permanent or not.
  • Some animals create regular runs. Otter make very distinctive slides in the snow.
  • Beds or lays can often reveal the presence of an animal in an area.

There are signs all around us of animal usage, if we know what to look for.

Tracking is a complex art, not nearly as simplistic as I have made it seem. It takes time to build the skills necessary to learn how to distinguish the tracks and signs of one animal from another and to interpret what they may have been doing. It is endlessly absorbing and can lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the wildlife around us. One need only go to a nearby local woodlot or field, to begin this study.

One note of caution: ensure that the needs of the animals come first. Don’t disturb den or nest sites or chase an animal. Slow-moving creatures, like porcupines, are especially vulnerable on the ground and can be easily stressed by humans approaching too closely to get photos of them or their tracks.

There are many books on the subject of tracking and identifying animal signs. Some of the best include:

  • Elbroch, Mark. 2003. Mammal Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species. Stackpole Books.
  • Rezendes, Paul. 1999. Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs. Collins.
  • Stokes, Donald and Lillian. 1986. Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior. Little, Brown and Company.