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Animal Tracks in the Snow: Can You Tell a Coyote's Print From a Raccoon's?

coyote tracksThey looked like musical notes crisscrossing the newly built trail we were snowshoeing.  Round paw prints in the snow revealed a loping, diagonal gait, as if a pianist had lightly drummed his fingers along the face of the earth.

"Has to be coyote."  This from Tom, a sixtysomething scientist whose internal furnace runs so hot that he spends the entire outing with a bare head and unzipped jacket.  The more sensibly bundled-and-gaitered Karen concurs.  

The 3 of us had met last October while volunteering to build a trail in north-central Washington state's Pearrygin Lake State Park. Now we were reconvening to enjoy the fruits of our labor, January-style.

Since Karen and Tom are locals and frequent park visitors, I nod in agreement about the coyote tracks—even though I'm completely new to this business of identifying animal tracks.

We take off, letting the coyote's trail pull us across the rolling hills in an impromptu side trip.

deer tracksAlong the way, we also spot tracks showing where groups of black-tail deer had moved toward cover. Their 2-toed marks (left) remind me of toaster slots dotting the snowy hillsides.  

The tracks didn't reveal anything especially dramatic (no blood on the snow), but that coyote shifted something for me.  It was as if I had brushed up against a bit of mystery and magic, and now I automatically look for animal tracks when I'm outside.

Decoding animal prints is an all-ages activity, great for both kids and grandparents.  (For a kid-friendly dose of inspiration, check out this roundup of animal tracks in the snow by a 10-year-old Scottish blogging prodigy named Jake.)
How to get started identifying animal tracks?

Some tips gleaned from both the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and its Ohio counterpart:

1.    Start close to home, where you already know which animals are most likely to visit. Begin by raccoon tracksidentifying common tracks, such as those of raccoons, squirrels and the neighborhood dogs.

2.  Pay special attention to the tracks' size, the number of toes and the pattern of the animal's gait. Some pointers:

•    Raccoons' front paws leave prints (right) that resemble small human hands.
•    Squirrels and other rodents have 5 toes on their front paws, but—surprise!—only 4 toes on their hind paws.
•    Dog tracks are round and reveal 4 toes plus claws—much like their coyote cousins.
•    Rabbits and other "hoppers" land with their hind feet actually in front of their forefee

rabbit tracks3.  As you get comfortable identifying animals close to home, consider venturing to a park or nature preserve. Items to bring along:

•    Binoculars
•    Camera
•    Paper & pencil to record your discoveries
•    Field guide
•    Or, a downloaded copy of this excellent and well-illustrated article from the Canadian Wildlife Federation

4.  Puzzled about where to find the best places for tracks? In its article on animal tracks in the snow, the Ohio DNR recommends "transition zones:" the places where 2 habitats intersect, such and forest and field or field and stream.

And be sure to look for prints along human-made trails. Animals gravitate toward the path of least resistance, too.

It's time to get out there and see what tracks you can find. Do you go out of your way to notice animal tracks in the snow? What ones have you spotted this winter? What was your most memorable sighting?

Photo credits from top to bottom: deer tracks - Kara Paulus, Flickr Creative Commons; raccoon tracks - Oakley Originals, Flickr Creative Commons; rabbit tracks  - Eden Pictures, Flickr Creative Commons

Posted on at 12:27 PM

Tagged: animal prints, animal tracks and winter animal tracking

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Kelly, I'm pretty sure that the 3rd footprint picture is of a squirrel's footprint. Raccoons look different from that, but the 1st bullet under #2 indicated they are raccoon footprints. Am I wrong?

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Len K

I was thinking the same thing about the squirrel tracks. Looks like they were in wet snow and melted a little and made clear prints. But it's hard to determine the size in the photo. The first tracks you describe--a diagonal gait might be a mustelid--fisher, wolverine, marten. But I wasn't there. Tracks are great fun. Last Spring after a late snow in Montana I hiked/snowshoed up a gulch in the morning that showed at least 5 grizzlies had been there--like within hours--looking for winter kill. I passed by 2 carcases that had been fed on. I was making a LOT of noise. In the Summer you might never know how close you are to something.


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