Winter Wildlife Tracks

Winter Wildlife Tracks

Don’t let the weather fool you. In some ways, there’s no better time than winter to head out on a trek to learn about wildlife.

Many animals and birds are active all winter, and wintertime conditions make it easier to learn about their movements. Snowy ground is easier to spot tracks on, and a lack of undergrowth can make feeding and other habits more noticeable.

So, while many animals will have either migrated or gone into hibernation, there are still lots of opportunities to spot signs of wildlife.

Who’s Out There?

The animals you’re likely to see signs of depend, of course, on where you are, but every region is home to a variety of species that spend their winters living their lives more or less in the open.

Species like elk, moose and deer tend to winter in places like forested valley bottoms, which protect them somewhat from wind and deep snow. Once they find a sheltered place, they become less active, staying in one place and browsing for food.

Predators like cougars, lynx, coyotes, foxes, wolves and martens need to stay active all winter so they can eat enough food to survive. They’ll generally follow their prey, moving down from mountains or hilly terrain into more protected areas.

Small mammals like rabbits, weasels and red squirrels will be out and about through the winter, as well. Mice and voles will forage under the snow, which keeps them insulated. Skunks and opossums don’t technically hibernate, but they keep close to their dens, so it’s less likely, but not impossible, to see activity from them.

Check local nature guides or conservation websites to learn what native species you might find in your area.

Winter Wildlife Tracks 101

The simplest way to learn about winter wildlife is to study their tracks. You can tell a lot from a footprint. But few of us have the knowledge and skills to deduce much from them unless we can see them in detail. Snow makes learning what made the track, and why, much easier.

A good tracking guide book or app will help you confirm what you’re seeing, but here are some basic questions you can ask yourself to narrow down the species whose footprints you’ve spotted.

  • How big is the track?
  • Would you describe it as a paw? A hoof?
  • What shape is it? Round? Oblong?
  • How many toes does it have? How are they spaced out? Do you see claws?
  • Are the footprints in pairs, like the animal hops?
  • If the tracks form a line, how far apart are the prints? How straight is the line?
  • Where does the track come from? Where does it go?

Try to get a sense of the depth of the track, as well—both in general, and in terms of which part of the foot produced the most pressure. That tells you how the animal moves, and how forcefully their feet landed. In general, the farther apart the tracks are spaced, the faster the animal was moving.

Common Tracks

Winter Wildlife Tracks

Smaller Tracks

Raccoons have five long toes on all four feet. The most tell-tale sign is the resemblance of the front feet to human handprints. The hind feet are longer than the front feet. Their toeprints will appear splayed, but not as markedly splayed as opossums. When they walk, they leave a pattern where their hind feet will land next to the footprint their opposite front foot has left.

Rabbits and hares leave distinctive tracks with the longer footprints of the back feet landing in front of the smaller front footprints. They move by bounding through snow, so their trail will feature clusters of all four prints, followed by larger gaps.

Mice, being light, will leave fainter impressions in the snow. There are 4 toes on the front and 5 on the back. Typically the four feet are grouped together with short spaces in between. You can often see a light impression of a tail dragging through the snow, as well.

Squirrels, like rabbits, move by hopping, so their tracks often appear as four prints landing together followed by spaces. Like mice, there are 4 toes on the front and 5 on the back. A sure sign of squirrel tracks is their tendency to end at the base of trees, where the squirrel has scurried up.

Skunk trails will be narrow, with one print in front of the other. Skunks have 5 toes on all four feet, with prominent claws on their front feet.

Opossums leaves more easily recognizable tracks because they have opposable digits on their hind feet. Otherwise, the tracks resemble raccoon tracks except that the front toes splay more.

Larger Tracks

Dogs have four toes and an oblong footprint shape with large nail impressions. Their metacarpal pads (which are akin to the human palm) have one lobe at the front and two at the back. Dogs have a wider gait than coyotes and usually won’t travel in a straight line.

Coyote tracks are straighter and narrower than dogs’ tracks are. They have a similar paw structure, but the toes are spaced more narrowly than dogs and their nails are sharper and thinner. Wolf tracks resemble coyote tracks, but will be larger and might be less defined around the edges because of extra fur. Unlike coyotes, their outer toes tend to splay out.

Fox tracks share the characteristics of coyotes, but will be smaller. Their hind feet will land in the print their front foot has left behind—a technique called “registering” that helps animals conserve energy as they move through snow.

Feline tracks (wild or domestic) won’t leave any nail impressions. There’s a marked C-shaped space between the 4 toe prints and the metacarpal pads. Their footprints are more square than canine prints. Look for palm pads with two lobes at the front and three at the back. They walk and trot diagonally, with hind tracks overlapping front ones.

Deer hooves have two toes that curve towards each other in front. Their tracks are placed one in front of the other in an alternating pattern if they’re walking or trotting. Deer engage in registering, too, so it might look like there are only two hoofprints.

Elk tracks are larger than deer, but have rounder hoofs than either deer or moose. Moose tracks will be larger than either deer or elk, with the toes pointed more towards the front. All of these species will leave visible dewclaw marks if the snow is deep.

A Final Word

If you head out on a winter wildlife trek this season, remember to give animals space, especially if you find tracks that seem to lead to a den. Winter is hard enough, and they sure could do without the additional stress that humans provide.

Feature image: Virginia State Parks; Image 1: Marina Pershina