Tracks in the Snow—The Secret Life of Wildlife in Our Midst

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A raptor plunges into the snow for its meal. Notice how the smaller animal’s tracks end. Photo credit MDNR

By Doug Marrin

Tracks in the snow open up a whole new world in animals' lives that can fuel the imagination and brighten the winter blues.

On a backpacking trip in Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park near Banff, we came across rabbit tracks in about six inches of snow. Big deal. Rabbit tracks are ubiquitous when backpacking. What got our attention was the big cat tracks along with them. By the size, we figured a lynx. The distance between the prints as they zig-zagged around the scrub suggested this was a chase. Our cold, wet trip was forgotten as we followed the drama to its end. The tracks parted ways, and the rabbit would live another day.

“Tracks can tell a story,” says Hannah Schauer, wildlife education technician for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, “If you find a trail of footprints, you may want to follow it to get a glimpse inside the animal’s life.”

“The trail of tracks you are following may come to an abrupt end where a new set of tracks or imprints are found,” writes Schauer. “Small mammal trails, like a mouse or rabbit, may end with an indent in the snow surrounded by wing prints – from this you can conclude that a hawk or owl had some luck catching dinner.”

Unless you have a dog, rabbit tracks are probably the most common prints you’ll find in your yard. Photo credit David Castor on Wikimedia

Taking a look at tracks in the snow can turn a bleak Michigan winter day into a world of adventure, giving a glimpse into the lives (and deaths) of the animals around us.

The University of Michigan’s Stinchfield Woods property in winter snow is like a visit north of The Wall, without the White Walkers or Wildlings. The muted effect of the snow makes a visit absolutely atmospheric. Snowshoeing one winter, I came across small tracks in the snow that abruptly ended in a basketball-sized impression. There was a clear impression of feathers where a big bird hit the snow. A small splotch of blood suggested it didn’t end well for the little one. A little further along the trail, I saw a dragon holding a goat. Or maybe it was an owl with a squirrel. I was excited, and my imagination had slipped its leash.

Having fun with tracks, however, doesn’t have to be an excursion into the wild. My grandkids enjoy checking out the prints in the snow when we go out to fill the bird and turkey feeders in the yard. They’re CSI Dexter doing the very important work of sorting out squirrel, rabbit, and bird tracks for a few minutes.

You’ll see a lot of squirrel tracks out in your yard, especially if you have a bird feeder. Photo credit Jomegat on Wikimedia.

“Is that a dog or cat track?” It’s the first question when finding a paw print in the snow. We want to know if we’re being watched by a coyote, wolf, bobcat, or cougar (again, I’m telling you, the imagination runs wild in the wild).

Check for claw marks. Canines cannot retract their claws and therefore leave distinct pointy, triangular claw marks at the end of each toe. If you do the circuit at Hudson Mills Metropark, you’ll get plenty of practice identifying dog tracks, and unfortunately, sometimes dog scat (frown-face emoji).

Felines, on the other hand, keep their claws retracted when walking or running. Their toes don’t leave pointy tracks.

In Washtenaw County, coyotes are common, and the dog tracks you find could belong to one. Coyote tracks are about 2 ½ inches long by 1 ½ inch wide, but many pet dogs are coyote-sized too. If the paw print is larger and you’re up north, it could be a wolf.

Wolf track. Photo credit Wisconsin DNR

Wolves and coyotes are not the only wild canine tracks you can find in Michigan. Red and gray foxes leave tracks about the same size as coyotes. You would have to measure the stride to know the difference. That’s the fun of animal tracks—you can take it as far as you want using measuring tape, notebook, and binoculars if you're going to go full-blown geek over it.

Cat tracks are a little more mysterious and exciting. Housecats out on the trail are highly unusual and just a little bit weird, as is anything when it’s not where you expect it. In Washtenaw County and throughout Michigan, wild feline tracks, albeit rare, are most likely from bobcats. Bobcat tracks are about 1 ½ inches long by 1 ⅜ inch wide.

There have been very few Canadian lynx sightings in Michigan, four 2003. Naturalists may cringe at this oversimplification, but the bobcat and lynx are the same-sized cats, except the lynx have feet more than twice the bobcat size. Tracks are large, averaging 3.7 inches wide and 4.5 inches long.

The largest cat in Michigan is the cougar, which is being spotted more and more in the U.P. However, the big cats have snuck across the bridge unseen somehow. Two years ago, one was spotted in the Bellaire, MI, area. Their paws are the same size as a lynx, about the size of my palm (I’m 6’ 1”)—no reports of cougars in Washtenaw County yet, at least of the four-legged kind.

Birds leave tracks that look like lousy handwriting. Bigger birds like wild turkeys leave prints that look just like their smaller kinfolk, only bigger (as if you needed to be told). Turkey tracks in the snow look like ancient cuneiform writing, the granddaddy of the written word. I doubt turkeys invented writing, but they are clever.

Bird tracks have the distinctive three toes forward, one back. Photo credit Tony Hisgett on Wikimedia.

In Washtenaw County, most of us know a split hoof track means a deer or a llama on the loose. If it spits on you, it’s a llama.

A few years ago, a bear was running around the wilds of Dexter. It left after a few weeks, probably when it couldn’t find a reasonably priced home. The rear foot of a bear looks surprisingly similar to a human’s barefoot--the obvious difference being the whole retractable claw thing again. Bears can’t retract their claws. Human-like toes with points mean a bear or somebody who really needs to clip their disgusting toenails.

It’s winter, a whole new world. Get out into the Metroparks' trails, the state land of Pinckney, Waterloo, Brighton, or Island Lake, the county parks, the nature preserves, or just out in your yard. And while you’re out for a few minutes or more, notice the tracks and see your world in a whole new way.

Image courtesy of MDNR
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