Have you ever wondered who visits you backyard when you aren't paying attention? Or perhaps you don't suspect anyone at all ... though you'd probably be surprised to know how many critters come visiting your yard or the park down the street.
If you're interested in growing your skills as a naturalist, learning animal tracks is an excellent place to start. There are a handful of common species likely to hang out in most suburban and even urban yards, which means you might not even have to leave your own neighborhood to gain skills in animal tracking.
Winter is a wonderful time to begin this new exploration. The season brings rain and snow, and while the weather might be chilly, the ground is ideal for spotting fresh animal tracks in the mornings. Pull on a coat and pair of boots, and head outside to see if you can spot these five common types of tracks.
Raccoons are perhaps the most conspicuous of urban and suburban neighbors. These nocturnal animals spend plenty of time exploring the streets and park pathways in their nightly explorations for food. Thanks to this uninhibited behavior, their tracks are usually all over the place in the morning, and especially visible after a midnight smattering of fresh snow.
Raccoon tracks are a great place to start your education because they're relatively easy to identify. They usually look like tiny human handprints! Five long digits, shaped much like four fingers and a thumb, make up the front foot. And five long digits with a more forward-pointing "thumb" and a somewhat larger palm pad make up the back foot.
Raccoons walk in what's called an "extreme overstep walk," in which the rear foot lands next to the opposite front foot when the animal takes a step. Their track pattern, therefore, usually shows a front foot and the opposite side's hind foot right next to each other, then another front and opposite hind right next to each other, and another again as the raccoon continues on its merry way down the street — another great characteristic that will help you identify a raccoon track.
In this image, you can see a front left foot next to a rear right foot.
If you live in suburbia where there are plenty of gardens around, you very likely have deer as hungry visitors either to your yard or those around you. If you've never noticed before, keep an eye out for these upside-down heart-shaped tracks, and suddenly you'll be seeing evidence of deer everywhere!
Deer are a great species to look for when you're learning to notice animal tracks because they are common animals, have a very distinct print, and the prints usually register very clearly in all types of substrate from mud and sand to grass and even moss.
Check out a field guide to see what species of deer live in your area. Depending on where you live, you may have white-tailed deer, black-tailed deer or mule deer. Also check out other hooved animals that live in your area. You might also have elk, moose, sheep or even wild pigs that pass through your suburban town. Learn to distinguish the size and shape of each, and you'll be able to see more detailed narratives written in the dirt!
Just as deer are common visitors to gardens, so too are rabbits. After a fresh snow, you're likely to see tracks that look like this in yards, along park paths and roadways, and even on college campuses and similar rabbit-friendly habitats.
Rabbits like to have cover to dash under, so check for tracks near the base of trees, bushes and along hedgerows. You'll likely see the tracks bounding directly from one bush to another as a rabbit bolts between hiding places, or circles a bush as it feeds.
Notice the distinct track pattern of a rabbit and you'll have an easy time spotting them in the future. When a rabbit bounds (which is pretty much the only way it moves), it lands one front foot then the other, and the two hinds land side by side ahead of the front feet.
In this image, a rabbit is bounding from the bottom left corner of the photograph to the top right. Just remember, "Front, Front, Hinds. Front, Front, Hinds."
Have a bird feeder in your yard? Then you've probably noticed squirrels trying to figure out how to steal those seeds! Squirrels can be found in yards, streets and parks in even the most densely populated urban spaces. Eastern gray squirrels are probably the most well known, as they tend to be fairly bold, so they're easy to spot. But depending on where you live, you might have gray squirrels, fox squirrels, red squirrels, Douglas squirrels or another species. Check out field guides for your area to find out who you have hanging around. Then head outside and look for their relatively conspicuous tracks.
When looking at squirrel tracks, notice the front feet have four digits (or toes) and distinct proximal pads (dots at the bottom of the track), while the hinds have five digits and don't show those proximal pad "dots." You'll also likely see the sharp claws of each foot register as well. In the photo above, the two hind feet are on the outside of the track pattern, and the two front feet are on the inside.
Squirrels usually either walk or bound when moving around, and when they bound, the distance between sets of tracks can be impressively big! Reference your field guide for specific details about the tracks of squirrel species in your neighborhood, including the size of the feet. This will help you tell species apart if more than one lives near you.
Another common visitor to many suburban backyards is the fox. Do a little research to see if you have gray foxes or red foxes around. Both species are known to take up residence near human habitation. This is because they usually aren't hunted by suburbanites, and such close proximity to people helps keep them safe from their arch enemy and direct competitor, the coyote.
Track identification can get tricky with canid tracks, because it's difficult to tell apart the tracks of wild canids — such as gray fox, red fox and coyote — from domestic dogs large and small. However, there are a few tell-tale marks that can help you figure it out.
The tracks shown here are from a gray fox. Notice that the overall shape is oval, the toes are narrow and pointed forward, and the nails are sharp and show up as a dot above the toe. These characteristics are typical of other wild species including red fox and coyote. Domestic dogs usually have a slightly more rounded overall shape as the outer toes point more outward than directly forward; a rather bulbous or bulky-looking heel pad; and nails that show up as large, distinct, and often (but not always) connected to the toe pad. In fact, the nails are one of the most conspicuous aspects of a domestic dog track. They simply don't stay as short and sharp as those of wild dogs.
Another way to tell apart wild canids from domestic dogs is to look at the track pattern. If you follow the trail, you'll notice that wild canid tracks usually have tidy gaits, move around in a direct, energy-efficient way, and take paths (such as side streets, alley ways and hidden trails) that domestic dogs don't. Also notice that they often don't have human footprints anywhere nearby. A domestic dog's tracks will likely also have human tracks around, and they'll usually show a "messy" gait as they wander on leash sniffing things or bound around with joyful abandon if they are off-leash. Going beyond a single track and taking in the trail as a whole will help guide you toward a certain answer of whether you're looking at a fox or a dog.
Keep growing your skills at wildlife tracking by learning the tracks of more of your many animal neighbors, and learn all about the wild stories happening all around you!
Books that will help you advance your skills include:
- Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species
- Bird Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species
- Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks
- Also look for field guides specific to your region that feature tracks and sign along with animal ID information