Find out how to distinguish suburban wildlife tracks

  • "Square" squirrel tracks on a red sandy trail.

    "Square" squirrel tracks on a red sandy trail. Courtesy of Mark Spreyer

 
By Mark Spreyer
Stillman Nature Center
Posted2/27/2020 7:40 AM

As I type this, the ground is covered with a fresh layer of snow. With that in mind, I'm going to write about three mammals that often leave their footprints in suburban snow: cottontail rabbits, raccoons and tree squirrels.

Squirrels typically leave four paw prints that approximate a square, with two large paws at the top and two smaller ones at the bottom. Not surprisingly, this is an example of a four-print track pattern.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Rabbits also have a four-print track pattern. Please keep in mind that if an animal is sitting and gnawing on an acorn or dashing to avoid a hawk, the tracks will not follow the common gaits I'll be describing.

Of course, these variations are what makes tracking animals so much fun.

The triangular pattern to these rabbit tracks is distinctive.
The triangular pattern to these rabbit tracks is distinctive. - Courtesy of Mark Spreyer

The cottontail rabbit's four-track pattern resembles a triangle. The two smaller prints are offset and make the point of the triangle. These bounding or hopping track patterns present with the larger hind paws in front.

The smaller front paws go down first and then the larger hind paws swing forward, sort of like a child might do when playing leap frog.

One could argue that when the animal is pushing off on its strong hind legs it is beginning its next stride, not ending the previous one. Fair enough. I work at a nature center, so I'm sticking with my squares and triangles.

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Habitat is an important consideration when studying animal tracks. If you see four-print mammal tracks going from one tree to another, it is most likely a squirrel. Either that or a rabbit with a headache!

Kidding aside, tree dwellers, like gray or fox squirrels, usually place their front feet side by side. Ground-dwellers, like rabbits, most often place their front feet on a diagonal.

Note the two-track pattern left behind by a wandering raccoon.
Note the two-track pattern left behind by a wandering raccoon. - Courtesy of Mark Spreyer

Raccoons don't do either, since they are an example of a two-track pattern.

As they walk, the hind foot is placed next to the track of the opposing front foot. If you have a clear track, the individual toes look like tiny fingers. That they can manipulate latches and garbage can lids seems rather obvious once you take a close look at their footprints.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

This brings up another point: when it comes to tracking, all snow is not created equal.

If the snow is hard and icy, small mammals will scamper on top without leaving any tracks.

If the snow is deep and soft, detailed individual tracks will be difficult to find. Soft snow combined with wind can quickly cover up a trail of tracks.

Tracking can be done in all seasons if you are in the right areas. Exposed mud along lakes and rivers are good places to look. Wet beach sand can also be a productive tracking site.

Why trudge around in the mud or snow following animal tracks? I think Paul Rezendes said it best, "For me, tracking is an educational process that opens the door to an animal's life -- and to our own."

• Mark Spreyer is executive director of the Stillman Nature Center in Barrington. Email him at stillnc@wildblue.net.

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