Fresh Animal Tracks on Snow

Follow that footprint, paw print, hoof print...Have you ever tracked someone's footprints in the sand or snow? It can be kind of a mystery figuring out where someone was going and what they were doing. By looking carefully at animal tracks you can learn more about their comings and goings too.

Winter is the perfect time to put on your detective hat and follow some animal tracks. You can do this in your yard, at a local city park, or for a real adventure, head out to a state park or forest. Pick a day right after a snowfall and see how many different types of tracks you can find.

Here are some hints to get you started.

  • Think about what kind of animals live in the area. This will help you narrow the field of identification. It's a pretty good bet that if you're looking in your backyard you'll find squirrel, bird, and maybe rabbit tracks.
  • Four toes on each of the front and hind feet means you're looking at a track from the dog family (fox, wolf, coyote, neighborhood dog) or the cat family (bobcat, lynx, neighborhood cat). Does the paw print have small triangular marks in front of it? If yes, those are claw marks. Raccoons, skunks, coyotes, foxes, and dogs will often leave claw marks. Cats, on the other hand, retract their claws when they walk or run. So, you won't usually find claw marks with bobcats, lynx, or house cats.
  • Four toes on the front foot and five toes on the hind foot means it's a rodent (mice, voles, chipmunks, squirrels, woodchucks, muskrat, porcupine).
  • If the track has five toes each on the front and back feet it's from a raccoon or a member of the weasel family (weasel, badger, mink, skunk, otter) or it's a bear, beaver, opossum.
  • If you find a two-toe track, it's probably a deer. Moose and elk also leave two-toe tracks, but those animals are uncommon in Wisconsin.
  • Is the track made by a "hopper?" Squirrels leave interesting tracks. As they bound along, their larger hind feet land ahead of their smaller front feet. It looks like the front feet are side by side. Rabbit tracks look a little different. The hind feet still land ahead of the front feet, but the front feet are not found right next to each other.
  • What direction is your animal going? How can you tell? If your animal has claws it's pretty easy...claw marks point in the direction the animal was going. If there aren't any claw marks, see if you can see where the snow is pushed back by the animal's feet. The pushed back areas shows the direction the animal came from.

You'll need a good tracking guide to help you identify the tracks you see. Here are a couple of suggestions.

  • A field guide to animal tracking in North America by James Halfpenny.
  • A field guide to animal tracks by Olaus Murie.
  • Mammal tracks, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.