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Kids & Critters: Tracks in the snow

  • Where is Bill’s <br/>nature column?<br/>Bill Danielson is taking a much needed and rare break from his weekly column but will soon return to this page.

    Where is Bill’s
    nature column?
    Bill Danielson is taking a much needed and rare break from his weekly column but will soon return to this page.

  • Where is Bill’s <br/>nature column?<br/>Bill Danielson is taking a much needed and rare break from his weekly column but will soon return to this page.

The winter is a wonderful time to go outside and see what the animals are up to. This may seem like an odd thing to say, because it is during the winter that there are the fewest animals out and about. The frogs and turtles in the local pond are all sleeping in the mud until spring warms the water. The snakes and salamanders are also hiding, but they find places underground to sleep through the winter.

Then, of course, there are the birds that migrate south for the winter. This leaves very few animals that are actually awake and active in the cold months of the year. But what makes winter so special, so magical when it is compared to any other season, is the snow that falls and covers the land. This snow is light and fluffy and is particularly good at preserving tracks.

The rabbits, foxes, squirrels and raccoons that walk through our yards on summer evenings leave no trace of their passing, but the same animals that sneak through our yards on winter nights leave clear evidence that they were there. Furthermore, if you get good at looking at tracks, you can begin to understand the stories that they tell.

Take the tracks in the photo that I have provided. I found this set of tracks in my driveway on a winter morning. The snow was less than an inch deep, which meant that the animal making the track actually touched the ground where the pads on its paws pressed down with the greatest force. This sort of situation is ideal for making very crisp, detailed tracks.

We see that this animal had small front paws and much larger hind paws. We also see that as the animal moved along, it put both of its front paws together and then lifted its hind paws up next to them. You have to imagine what happened next: the animal jumped with the power of its hind paws, landed on its front paws, and then brought its hind feet up for another leap. Clearly, this animal was running in a very particular way.

Rabbits do this, but squirrels also run in this manner, so we have to look for more clues. If you examine the tracks closely, you can see that they show an animal with small front paws equipped with slender toes tipped with sharp claws. Even the back feet, which are larger, have sharp claws.

So which kind of animal do you think needs sharp claws for climbing trees? If you said “squirrel,” then you were correct. These are the tracks of a squirrel and based on the size of the tracks (which is difficult to tell in a photo), these are probably the tracks of a gray squirrel. It also helped me to follow the tracks and see that they ended at the base of a tree. Rabbits don’t climb trees, so they had to be the tracks of a squirrel.

It turns out that many people are very interested in learning how to read animal tracks. There are many books, posters and handouts that show the shapes, sizes and patterns of the tracks left by all sorts of animals. I even have one in my own library that shows the tracks of a bullfrog. If you would like a great guide to animal tracks that is also free, just type, “Mass Wildlife Pocket Guide to MA Animal Tracks,” into your favorite search engine and you can print out your very own key to tracks.

If you really enjoy tracking, you can buy books and learn how to “read” animal tracks. With a fresh blanket of snow on the ground, why not go into your backyard and see who’s been sneaking around when you weren’t looking?

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. His Speaking of Nature column runs weekly in The Recorder, except for the first Thursday of each month, which is when his Kids and Critters column for young readers appears. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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