By Katie Shipka
Ohio certified volunteer naturalist
An interesting and fun family adventure is following the trails of wild animals in the snow. This can be quite easy or it can be deceptive and tricky, depending on two main factors: gait patterns and temperature.
Each animal leaves its own distinct mark in the snow, just as our boots leave distinct tracks. Gait patterns are one of the tools to identify animal tracks, and many are readily identifiable if you recognize the consistent patterns of their footprints.
The best way to begin tracking is to focus on the most common species found in and around your backyard and beyond, keeping in mind the possibility of a warming trend that distorts footprints, thereby disguising the original print.
Snow ideally should be neither too fluffy (blows away easily) nor too deep.
Animals don’t just wander about aimlessly but have three specific purposes in mind – food, water and shelter. The best places for tracking are where two habitats intersect, such as field and forest. Usually a variety of species in this type of transition zone becomes the most interesting because it supports a variety of wildlife.
These are the seven most commonly found mammals in and around our neighborhoods and parks here in the Mahoning Valley:
Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus – Cottontail) tracks are most frequently found after a snowfall when they are searching for green shoots and other limited food sources.
They have a repeating, bounding pattern which forms a thin rectangle with small round toes and fur-covered feet.
Each group of four tracks leave two top prints longer in length, and two bottom prints, shorter in length. The short prints are the rabbit’s front paws and longer ones on top are the hind feet which they use to push off when running.
The longer the prints are in length, the faster the rabbit has sprinted, perhaps escaping from a hawk looking for dinner.
Squirrels (Scirus niger – Fox squirrel) have a wide blocking pattern to their footprints when bounding over snow.
If the tracks are fresh and clear, you may also notice long, skinny toes pressed into the snow.
Tracks will frequently lead to a nearby tree, which they’ll climb to escape a predator.
Squirrel tracks are also wider apart than other tracks because of their loping gait.
If searching for nuts, the footprints will be closer together and somewhat confusing, but the skinny toes will be an important, recognizable feature.
Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) – White-tailed deer tracks, in many parks and some backyards, are readily identifiable by the heart-shaped pattern left in the snow.
Just to make identification more confusing, the hind feet tend to step on top of their front tracks when walking, leaving a distorted pattern.
Tracks might appear larger than the original track, which is why studying many tracks appearing together is beneficial.
From the footprints you observe, you can also determine what the deer was doing – running (notice spacing), walking or feeding on your shrubs.
Dog (Canis lupus familiaris) tracks are easily misidentified as coyote.
One way to differentiate between them is to follow the tracks. Dogs tend to wander in an aimless pattern.
Scents left by other animals are very important for dogs to learn what animals preceded them, and when.
Dog heel pads tend to be fairly small, about the same size as three of their toes, depending on the size of the dog.
Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are most comfortable in areas with a lot of ground cover, such as logs, trees and shrubs to hide from cats, dogs and hungry hawks.
These omnivores can live comfortably in their burrows, but during warmer, sunny days with snow on the ground, their footprints can be easily found.
Tracks are in groupings of four – the five hind toe tracks are on the top and the front four toe tracks are on the bottom.
At just 2-6 inches long and weighing 1 pound, the tracks are small and close together.
If feeding backyard birds, you will notice these tiny prints under feeders.
Raccoon (Procyon lotor), with their masked face, is a familiar visitor.
They have five toes on both front and hind feet, giving them the ability to open doors, raid garbage cans and become destructive.
These intelligent omnivores eat a variety of food such as frogs, birds and their eggs, mice, insects and cat food.
They are usually found by a water source, including sewers.
They do not hibernate, but leave paired footprints side by side.
With a distance of about 10-11 inches apart, the right front foot is followed by the right hind foot, followed by the left front and finally the left rear.
Finally, the domestic cat (Felis catus) is frequently observed stalking its prey in backyards and parks.
They have four toes on both their front and hind feet and tend to plant their hind paws close to their front paws.
When not running, they tend to step gingerly over snow, sometimes even stepping into their own print, creating a larger print than expected. Of course this makes reading the footprint more challenging.
For details on these wildlife and descriptions of their tracks, go to http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov.