Now that there's actually some snow on the ground, it's a great time to take advantage of some of the pleasures it can provide. You can go skiing or snowboarding, snowshoeing, sledding or make snow angels. But one of my favorite things to do is to become an Animal Detective.
Animal neighbors cross our paths regularly, whether they are squirrels in the city or bobcats in the forest. Yet we often don't know they are around, until the snows of winter provide a perfect canvass on which they leave their paintings of activity. By learning to interpret the tracks and signs of animals, you can solve mysteries like "Who done it?" and "Where'd they go?"
A good Animal Detective needs to learn a few tips. First, the way mammals move results in one of four gait patterns: walkers, waddlers, bounders and leapers: See the patterns below.
Walkers have relatively long legs, like deer, moose, dogs and cats. They bring their feet around and in front of each other, placing the back foot in the print made by the front foot, so that they leave a straight line pattern.
In contrast, waddlers such as raccoons, bears, and skunks, have short legs and rounder bodies, so their right and left feet stay to the sides, waddling along, leaving a parallel, zigzag pattern.
The bounders also have short legs but skinny bodies, so they can pick up both front feet and bound forward. Their back feet usually land in the prints of their front feet, leaving two even parallel lines.
The rabbits, squirrels and other rodents are called leapers, because their long back legs swing around in front of their smaller front paws, creating a pattern that looks as though they are leaping backward.
Learning these gait characteristics is a good way to start when trying to identify who made a track. Looking for patterns is also a helpful way to avoid getting confused by "snow plops" -- the marks left when snow falls from the trees.
Once you have determined the gait pattern, size can help you figure out which member of the group you might be following. It's helpful to have a measuring tape and a handy tracking guide along with you. Track Finder by Dorcas Miller is a great pocket-sized companion for these adventures.
Measure the stride or length between tracks, as well as the straddle or width of the tracks, to indicate the size of the animal. This is the best way to tell red squirrel from gray squirrel or weasels from mink.
If the snow is fresh and not too deep, prints can be clear enough for the observant detective to notice the paw shape, number of toes and the presence of claw marks. Claw marks on a walker indicate a member of the dog family, since the retractable claws of a cat don't register in the print. Two toes on a walker are the hooves of the deer or moose.
Members of the weasel family, as well as raccoons and bears have five toes in front and back, while most rodents have four toes in front and five in the back.
Deciphering the subtle clues can take practice, but one of the important things to think about when tracking is where you are. If you are not near a pond or wetland, chances are you're not seeing beaver tracks. On the other hand, your new detective skills might help you discover that moose and coyotes actually pass through, even in some of the more developed neighborhoods.
You can join the Animal Detective Club no matter where you live (or how old you are). Following the tracks of dogs and cats can be as exciting as tracking a fisher. The trail may lead you to a place with more clues, such as fur, droppings, a food cache or a resting spot. Whatever you find, it will be a great reminder that we are not alone. We share our parks, fields and woodlands with many wild neighbors, and it's a lot of fun to get outside and learn who they are and what they are doing when we're not looking.
For more information on deciphering animal signs, check out "A Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior" by Donald & Lillian Stokes or "Tracking and the Art of Seeing" by Paul Rezendes.