In Your Backyard: Become an Animal Track Detective

Written by Bryn Scriver, Lakeshore Nature Preserve Volunteer & Outreach Coordinator

    A snow-covered squirrel sits in a tree bordering the snow-covered Howard Temin Lakeshore Path during winter at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Jan. 26, 2016. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

Tired of winter? Bored of being indoors? Feeling cooped up? Relieve some of that cabin fever by learning about the animals that live around you — using their tracks! After a new snowfall, head out to the Lakeshore Nature Preserve to see how many types of animal tracks you can find in the snow. Can you tell what animal made them? Where are they going? How far can you follow them?

Here are some hints from the WI Department of Natural Resources EEK! Web pageto get you started:

  • Tracks with four toes on both the front and back feet are left by members of the dog family (fox, coyote, domestic dog) or the cat family (bobcat, domestic cat). If the print has small triangular marks in front of it, those are claw marks. Raccoons, skunks, coyotes, foxes, and dogs will often leave claw marks. Cats usually retract their claws when they walk.
  • Tracks with four toes on the front foot and five toes on the back foot are left by rodents (mice, voles, chipmunks, squirrels, woodchucks, muskrat).
  • If the track has five toes on both the front and back feet it’s from a raccoon, beaver, opossum, or a member of the weasel family (weasel, mink, skunk).
  • Deer leave two-toed tracks.

Some animals leave interesting tracks when they “hop.” As squirrels bound along, their larger back feet land ahead of their smaller front feet which are placed right next to each other. With rabbits too, the back feet land ahead of the front feet, but the front feet are not placed right next to each other.

Mammals aren’t the only track-makers; watch for bird tracks too!

Can you find other signs of animals, like scat (feces), urination marks, hairs, and chewing or gnawing on vegetation?

If you want tips from an expert animal track sleuth, join UW wildlife specialist and Professor David Drake for a field trip on animal tracking in the Preserve on Saturday Jan. 12, from 1 to 3 p.m. Meet at the entrance to Picnic Point at UW parking lot 129.

Visit the Lakeshore Nature Preserve website for more information.