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| 4 min read | by Doug Marrin, dmarrin@thesuntimesnews.com |

Tracks in the snow show where a bird made a dive to catch dinner. Visible are the animal tracks and imprints in the snow from the bird’s wing and tail. | Photo MDNR

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

We came across rabbit tracks in about six inches of snow. This was nothing in itself. 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.

“Tracks can tell a story,” says Hannah Schauer in an MDNR article titled Tracking Wildlife is a Fun, Educational Winter Activity, 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.”

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An early snowstorm hit us on that trip in Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park and we were cold, wet, and miserable. But the moment we came across those rabbit and lynx tracks just outside of our camp, our misery was briefly forgotten as the story those prints told unfolded ion the movie screen of our imaginations. Following the tracks a bit we saw where the two parted ways. The rabbit would live another day, and the lynx would have to do its grocery shopping elsewhere. It’s hard to beat four lucky rabbit’s feet.

Bird tracks in snow | Photo: Wikimedia

 “The trail of tracks you are following may come to an abrupt end where a new set of tracks or imprints are found,” Schauer says in the article. “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.”

This is the magic of finding tracks in the snow: It 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. Pawprints in the snow can open up a new dimension where the imagination can slip its leash and run.

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 it 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. It was too small for a dragon. There was a small splotch of blood. A little further along the trail, I saw an owl up in a tree holding a what looked like a squirrel. Or maybe it was a dragon, with a goat. The hike suddenly took on new life.

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

One of the more common questions when looking at a paw print is whether it came from a canine or a feline. Is this a coyote or bobcat? What exactly is lurking in these woods? I feel like I’m being watched. Finding tracks creates a whole new awareness with some vulnerability.

Canine tracks are easily distinguished by the tell-tale point at the end of the toes | Photo: Wisconsin DNR

The easiest way to quickly determine whether the track is canine or feline is to 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.

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

In Washtenaw County, coyotes are common and the dog tracks you find could quite possibly belong to one. Coyote tracks are about 2 ½ inches long by 1 ½ inches wide, but many pet dogs are coyote-sized too. If the track is larger and you’re up north, it could be a wolf. If you’re around here, somebody’s big dog slipped its leash.

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. And that’s the fun of animal tracks: you can take it as far as you want using measuring tape, notebook, and binoculars if you want to go full-blown geek over it.

Courtesy MDNR

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 inches wide.

There have been very few Canadian lynx sightings in Michigan, three since 2003. Most recently a lynx was trapped in Michigan’s thumb area and rehabilitated at the Howell Nature Center before being released back into the wilds of the Upper Peninsula. Naturalists may cringe at this oversimplification, but the bobcat and lynx are basically the same cats except the lynx have feet more than twice the size of a bobcat. Tracks are large, averaging 3.7 inches wide and 4.5 inches long.

Cougar track | Photo: Wisconsin DNR

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. A year 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. Now if you’ve found cat tracks as big as a frying pan you have somehow stumbled through a wormhole into Siberia and are on the trail of a tiger. Go with God. Nice knowin’ ya.

Speaking of endangered species and human efforts to give animals a helping hand, “Tracks can also help biologists monitor the presence of animals that are not usually seen,” adds Schauer. “Oftentimes, wildlife is very hard to spot because they tend to avoid humans whenever possible, but animals will leave behind clues to their presence, like tracks.”

Birds leave tracks that look like bad handwriting. Bigger birds like wild turkeys leave tracks 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. There were no turkeys in ancient Mesopotamia, but the region is bordered by modern-day Turkey. I doubt turkeys invented writing, but they are clever.

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 couple of years ago there was a bear running around 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. Toes with points mean a bear, or somebody who really needs to clip their disgusting toenails.

Deer tracks, like these, are one of the easier tracks to identify. They often show up clearly in snow or mud. | Photo MDNR

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

Below are some charts from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to help you identify the animal by their tracks.

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