Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

QR Code tracking sign in state park. © GERIANN ALBERS

The Wisconsin DNR is piloting a new sign featuring a QR code that allows smartphone users to download a mammal track brochure directly to their phone.
©Geriann Albers

December 2013

Creature Comforts

Get on track with winter.

Natasha Kassulke

Watch where you walk this winter. What you see could surprise you. The snow tells all. Other times of the year it may be possible for a rabbit or a deer to lead the way without leaving a trace. But in the snow itís another story. Like mud or sand, snow captures animal tracks. And much like fingerprints, each animal has a track particular to its kind.

Graphic Badger Track © DNR
Coyote Track.

Discover a paw print and you could be following a coyote or the neighborhood dog.

Step on a hoof print and you might be sharing a trail with a deer.

See a five-toe track and you could soon find yourself staring down a skunk.

Does the track look like it was left by a hopper? It could have been left by a squirrel or rabbit.

Mouse. Mole. They are all on the move in winter and leaving you clues to their direction. Keep in mind that animals rarely just wander about aimlessly. Following tracks can lead you to food, water or an animalís shelter.

Youíll find tracks on trails, in fields and farmyards — even in your backyard. But the best tracking environments are areas where two habitats intersect, such as forests and fields, or fields and streams. These are transition zones that often support a variety of wildlife species.

Following tracks also can lead to other evidence. Watch for scat, feathers and food scraps that can provide clues as to what you are stalking.

When tracking it is best to start early in the day or later as dusk comes. Shadows make it easier to spot tracks in the snow. Keep the track between you and the sun so that the light casts shadows in the print. A flashlight also works well in low light and for tracking at night.

Itís helpful if you can get down on your hands and knees. Note the size of the track and whether it shows claw or other marks. Bring a short ruler so that you can measure the size of the print and the distance between the tracks. Make note of the stride— the distance from the heel of one print to the heel of the next.

Take note of patterns in the print. Paw prints with small triangular marks in front of it signal 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 wonít usually find claw marks with bobcats or house cats.

Graphic Badger Track © DNR
Timber Wolf Track.

Tracks tell stories. Are there many animals or a few? Are you looking for one culprit, a pair ó even a pack? Which way is the animal heading?

Carry a tracking guidebook for on-the-spot deciphering. Or make notes and sketches to take home and continue your detective work in warmth.

Keep a journal of your sketches and field notes. It might be fun to look back at this time next year and review your ďtrack record.Ē

Want to make a more permanent record of your discovery? Make a plaster cast of the track. To learn more about casting, visit DNRís Environmental Education for Kids website (EEK!).

So remember to watch where you walk. Tracks, after all, are so much more fun to step in than scat.

The Wisconsin DNR is piloting a new sign featuring a QR code that allows smartphone users to download a mammal track brochure directly to their phone. This handy brochure will help you identify and compare tracks you may encounter while youíre out enjoying Wisconsinís outdoors. The signs are currently posted at many state wildlife areas and some state parks in the southern and northeastern parts of the state. Look for them on a trail near you!

Natasha Kassulke is editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine