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Nature Notes: Animal Tracking

Ed Robinson
February 28, 2013
Red squirrel tracks in the snow.
Red squirrel tracks in the snow.

If you want to play detective, there is a much you can learn from reading footprints left by some of the wild inhabitants of Harpswell.

As a boy, I had the run of thousands of acres of land near my home. The woods and fields were filled with a wide variety of wildlife and I gradually learned to read the stories of these animals through the tracks they left behind. In following a set of tracks, I was sometimes lucky enough to surprise the creature that left his story on the ground.

Soft ground or mud is probably the best choice for following tracks, although an inch or two of fresh snow also makes a great backdrop for your detective work. A sandy ocean beach can be fun to “read” since tidal movements will erase old tracks every few hours. For larger animals like deer or moose, you may be able to follow their movements without even looking at the ground, since they browse, bend or break plants and shrubs as they walk about.

A set of tracks can relate a great deal of information if you take the time to follow them and think about what you are seeing. For instance, a wandering deer trail can reveal the plants upon which the deer is feeding. The track of a small doe will be substantially narrower and sharper pointed than that of a mature buck, whose large body will push his long, rounded footprints deep into the soil, often leaving the marks of his dew claws as well. With experience you can judge the age of a track by the condition of the soil or snow.

You may be confused by tracks that are similar but not identical. For instance, dog tracks and those of foxes and coyotes can be hard to distinguish. In general, dog tracks are more rounded while fox and coyote tracks are more pointed in the toe. Another clue may be in the nature of the trail. Wild canids tend to walk in fairly straight lines from point to point, since their focus is on finding their next meal without wasting energy. Most dogs are well fed, so they are more likely to run and jump in all directions, especially when accompanied by their owners.

Determining what creature you are following gets interesting when dealing with animals that have long toes: the raccoons, skunks, porcupines and opossums. Depending upon the soil conditions, you may see only partial prints so your detective skills must be sharp. By looking at the terrain and habitat where you find the tracks, you can make some deductions based upon your knowledge of where such animals live and eat.

Spend enough time tracking wild animals and you will also unravel stories of Mother Nature’s food chain. In the forest, you may see large patches of over-turned leaves where turkeys have foraged for acorns and insects. Droppings or “scat” may reveal hair, bones, or seeds to indicate what an animal has been eating, and can help you identify the animal who left it behind. If you are looking for crime scenes, a fox track may lead you to a pile of fur where he caught up with a rabbit. In soft snow, you might identify where a bird of prey has landed, probably ending in the demise of a small rodent.

If you enjoy learning about the animals around you while enjoying wild places in our town, take some time to look down while you walk. To refine your knowledge, there are lots of good tracking books available, and the internet has more photos of tracks than you could ever hope to study. The Harpswell Heritage Land Trust will soon sponsor a walk to teach you the basics of wildlife tracking, so get your magnifying glass and join the fun!

If you like Ed Robinson’s writing, check out his two Nature Notes books! Click here for more information.