Identifying Animal Tracks in Snow – 5 Common Backyard Species
While tracking in the snow can be fantastically easy, it can also be deceptively tricky. Everything you know about tracks gets upended when the tracks are hidden at the bottom of deep leg holes in deep snow. Additionally, tracks can become distorted and expand dramatically as snow melts. In deep, melted snow I’ve actually seen people mistake squirrel tracks for those of a bear!
While trackers usually depend upon the details in each track (like the number and shape of the toes or the presence of claws) to make identifications, in snow it is often necessary to look for other clues. Gait patterns are one of the best tools to ID tracks in the snow and some species are easily recognized from a distance simply by the pattern of tracks. Researchers have even conducted wildlife surveys in snow by identifying the tracks of larger animals from small airplanes!
The best way to get started with tracking in the snow is to first learn the most common species you’re likely to encounter. Here are 5 that seem to be in everyone’s backyard:
Rabbit tracks are one of the most commonly seen after a snow. Look for the repeating bound patterns. Each group of 4 tracks tends to form a tall, thin rectangle. Squirrel bound patterns tend to be much more blocky. Rabbits also have small round toes and fur covered feet while squirrels have long fingers.
Squirrels have a wide and blocky bounding pattern when compared to rabbits. If tracks are clear you may see the long skinny toes. Follow their tracks and they will eventually lead to a tree or other structure for them to climb.
House cats are everywhere. I’ve seen their tracks in places surprisingly far from people. They have 4 toes on their front and hind feet and tend to direct register walk (hind feet landing in the front tracks) when walking in snow.
Dog tracks are often misidentified as mountain lions. Look for 4-toes on each foot, claws that usually (but not always) show, and a triangular shaped heel pad. Dog heel pads tend to be fairly small (about the size of 3 of their toes) while cat heel pads tend to be larger (about the size of 4 toes).
Deer tracks are usually easy to identify. However, their hind feet tend to step on top of their front tracks leaving distorted and confusing marks. In deep snow even deer tracks can be tough to identify.
Hopefully this gets you started. Other common backyard species include gray fox, red fox, raccoon, opossum, and mice. Enjoy the snow!