Wildlife

A Field Guide to Tracking in Your Neighborhood

January 3, 2017

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Raccoon track in mud along stream. Sarpy County, Nebraska. October 1996. Central Tallgrass Prairie Ecoregion. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Chris Helzer)
Raccoon track in mud along stream. Sarpy County, Nebraska. October 1996. Central Tallgrass Prairie Ecoregion. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Chris Helzer)

Tracking is one of the most family-friendly wildlife activities; you can enjoy it anywhere there is a patch of open ground. As I’ve written previously, kids love deciphering the mysteries of animal tracks. Even my two-year-old son loves checking out the tracks in our yard.

Following tracks is often the best way to learn habits of undisturbed wildlife. Oftentimes, you never know many elusive animals are roaming your neighborhood – until you see their tracks. It might be difficult to catch a glimpse of a raccoon, but you may be able to follow its nightly routine via tracking.

Tracking is also an easy activity to learn. Yes, there are many nuances and some tracks are difficult to tell apart. I highly recommend Olaus Murie’s classic Peterson’s Field Guide to Animal Tracks. It contains exhaustive information on track size, patterns, scat, dens and other sign left by animals. It’s like a mystery-solving handbook. I wore mine out as a kid and still refer to it frequently.

Snow, of course, makes tracking easy. If you don’t have snow, trying searching near water like ponds, creeks or rivers. Most wild animals visit water, and leave their tracks in the mud.

This guide isn’t meant to take the place of a book or app. I’m featuring some of the interesting tracks you might find on your ramblings. These are also fun to follow. Many of them can be found in urban and suburban habitats.

Please leave your own favorites in the Comments section.

  1. Red Fox

    Red fox was here. Photo © Jean-François Chénier / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
    Red fox was here. Photo © Jean-François Chénier / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    The red fox’s tracks are distinctive: little round pads that are “single file” – the tracks lined up neatly behind one another. To me, they resemble a dainty dog.

    As many naturalists have pointed out, dogs and coyotes are easily distracted, and their tracks wander accordingly. A red fox’s tracks give the impression of a creature that knows exactly where it’s going – and it’s not messing around.

    This makes fox tracks fun and easy to follow. Track slowly, and scan ahead of you: you may catch a glimpse of the fox hunting or even resting. They are very active in winter, making them much easier to see.

  2. Raccoon

    Raccoon track next to a lightning venus clam on the beach at Munyon Island. Photo ©  Bob Peterson / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
    Raccoon track next to a lightning venus clam on the beach at Munyon Island. Photo ©  Bob Peterson / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    Early naturalists in the 20th century lamented raccoons, then a creature of the forest. They feared, as forests cleared, the raccoon would go the way of the passenger pigeon. How wrong they were. Raccoons, it turned out, found farms, suburbs and even dense cities to be much better habitats. They’ve colonized them and prospered.

    Their tracks are distinctive: think two- to three-inch “hands” with five fingers. Their gait is such that their front paw and slightly larger back paw fall side by side on the ground. Tracking them reveals just how adaptable they are: cruising along rivers one minute and then dipping into a storm sewer the next. It can be amusing when you see tracks pause by a garbage can, much less so when they’re by your chicken pen.

  3. Opossum

    Animal tracks (probably Opossum) in mud at Dolly Sods Wilderness. Photo © Kent Mason
    Animal tracks (probably Opossum) in mud at Dolly Sods Wilderness. Photo © Kent Mason

    Opossum tracks are somewhat similar to those of a raccoon; in some situations they can be difficult to tell apart. But usually you can tell the opossum because its fingers appear splayed, giving the impression of a human hand that is spread out.

    Opossums often den in old woodchuck holes and other burrows, and the animals follow a routine. This means there is often a well-used trail where their tracks are easily visible. While I have seen opossum tracks in the snow, cold weather is not optimal for these creatures. They have steadily expanded their range north, but when temperatures dip, their tails often suffer from frostbite.

  4. Cottontail Rabbit

    Rabbit tracks in snow with prairie grasses at Deep Well Wildlife Management Area Prairie, a Nebraska Game and Parks Commission site. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Chris Helzer)
    Rabbit tracks in snow with prairie grasses at Deep Well Wildlife Management Area Prairie, a Nebraska Game and Parks Commission site. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Chris Helzer)

    One of the most common tracks you’ll encounter on a snowy day. Rabbit tracks often criss-cross each other, which makes following them a challenge. The rabbit’s tracks appear as two pairs: smaller, better-defined pads (the front feet) and larger, almost slash-like pads (back feet). The front feet are very close together, sometimes appearing as one track. The back feet are spread apart. If the rabbit is hopping, the back feet often appear in the snow ahead of the front feet.

    Following rabbit tracks, you can often find where one stopped to browse a limb, or duck under a brush pile for cover. Like many other smaller mammals, they also use burrows dug by other animals for shelter.

  5. Raptor “Snow Angels” and Other Signs of Predation

    Raptor snow angel. Photo © USFWS/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
    Raptor snow angel. Photo © USFWS/Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    And sometimes when tracking rabbits, you’ll find where one met a violent end. Lots of predators eat rabbits, and most of them are out hunting on a winter day. When you’re tracking, you may see signs of this struggle between predator and prey.

    The most striking example is what some call a raptor “snow angel”: wings of a bird of prey are delicately brushed on a snowy surface. This is a deadly snow angel: it’s what happens when a raptor swoops and picks its prey off the snow.

    Other signs of predation will resemble the finale of a slasher flick: churned snow, blood, fur and animal parts will lie strewn about. For a dedicated tracker, frankly, it doesn’t get much better.

  6. Small Rodents

    Small mammal tracks and burrow in snow. Lancaster County, Nebraska. March 1995. Central Tallgrass Prairie Ecoregion. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Chris Helzer)
    Small mammal tracks and burrow in snow. Lancaster County, Nebraska. March 1995. Central Tallgrass Prairie Ecoregion. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Chris Helzer)

    There could be several small species of rodents in your neighborhood – including deer mice and various voles. They often just leave tiny indents in the snow. But if the conditions are just right—snow that is slightly wet—you can actually make out the full detail of their small feet. Voles prefer not to be running around on snow, because a small, brown mammal on a white backdrop quickly becomes dinner (see above).

    Voles do live in burrows just below the surface. When it snows, they burrow between grass and snow. When the snow melts, you can easily see these burrows: they look like grass tubes above the ground. In some areas, these burrows reveal an amazing density of voles, with the “tubes” forming maze-like latticework across the lawn.

  7. Beaver

    Beaver tracks in mud along the San Pedro River at 3-Links Farm. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Sue Sirkus)
    Beaver tracks in mud along the San Pedro River at 3-Links Farm. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Sue Sirkus)

    Beavers, a major conservation success story, are appearing in many urban and suburban waterways. They’re not often easy to see, but their signs are hard to miss. Of course, the biggest clue is in the trees: if they’re around, you’ll see tree branches neatly cleaned of all bark and of course large trunks with their toothy chisel marks.

    They also leave very interesting tracks. Their unique tail trails behind them in the snow or mud, leaving the impression of a sled. If you find all this sign of beaver activity, it’s worth staking out the area at dusk for a sight of the live animal.

  8. Turkey

    Turkey tracks. Photo © Tim Engleman / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
    Turkey tracks. Photo © Tim Engleman / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

    Most birds are difficult to track. Many leave tracks, of course: you’ll see them all around your bird feeder. But they’re difficult to distinguish by species, and they often land, hop around and fly away. Not exactly an exciting tracking experience.

    Some birds, though, move around a lot on foot. Various quail species and ring-necked pheasants can be quite fun to track. But best of all is the turkey. Turkey tracks are difficult to miss. Yes, they have the three-pronged foot of a bird, but in the snow or mud the tracks appear huge. In winter, they’re living in large flocks, so the tracks give the impression of a turkey army trekking through the woods.

    Follow them and you’ll understand the fascinating lives of these birds. You’ll see that they frequently stop to scratch up seeds and insects (they’ll eat just about anything), and can cover a lot of ground in a day. They’re one of the easiest and most fun species to track for an extended period of time.

  9. Grouse Snow Cave

    Snow hole and wing marks: signs of a ruffed grouse shelter. Photo © Cephas / Wikimedia through a Creative Commons license.
    Snow hole and wing marks: signs of a ruffed grouse shelter. Photo © Cephas / Wikimedia through a Creative Commons license.

    One of the most interesting “tracks” is not a print. Ruffed grouse escape the harshness of winter by plunging from the air into deep snow. The snow melts around their body and forms a snug snow cave. When startled, the grouse will burst from the cave, leaving its own “snow angel” behind.

    Since grouse don’t dig their snow cave, you can’t really track the bird. As such, finding evidence of one is one of tracking’s most difficult feats.

  10. Wolf and Mountain Lion

    A mountain lion track is visible in sandy soil in a wildlife tunnel beneath Highway 118 at Santa Susana Pass in Simi Valley, CA. Photo © Bill Evarts
    A mountain lion track is visible in sandy soil in a wildlife tunnel beneath Highway 118 at Santa Susana Pass in Simi Valley, CA. Photo © Bill Evarts

    I know that wolves and mountain lions don’t roam in many neighborhoods. But in many parts of the Western United States, they do follow mule deer migrations in winter, which often means these large predators are closer to towns and cities.

    They can get quite close to my home in Boise, Idaho. Many people report seeing their tracks, but the reality is it’s often a case of mistaken identity. Coyotes and dogs leave similar tracks, and many become “wolf” by an inexperienced or over-eager tracker.

    I’ve encountered both animal tracks in wilderness areas. The overwhelming first impression is this: They’re big. Really, really big. The first time you see a genuine wolf track, you will see it is nothing like a dog. Ditto for mountain lion.

    A mountain lion, like other cats, retracts its claws, so it’s tracks appear like a pie pan. They are at least three inches long and wide.  You can see the claws of a gray wolf, and its tracks indeed resemble a really large dog. The wolf’s tracks are 4.5 inches or more in length and width.

    When I’ve found the tracks of these animals, the size and setting always make my hair stand up. I know I’m far more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a wolf, but the size and evident power of these animals demand you pay attention: it’s the sign of wild country.

    But encountering even a raccoon or beaver track on your evening jog can elicit a sense of wonder: the neighborhood just got a bit more interesting, a bit wilder.

Matt Miller

Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt

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What's Your Favorite Animal to Track?

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11 comments

  1. I like to track bear. But any animal that is unfamiliar to me I will follow. I make cast of these tracks for teaching young children from the cities what animals live around them.

  2. I used to live in the Laguna Mountain Range east of San Diego, lots ofcoyotes, an occasional mountain lion most interesting was the road runner.

  3. I see a lot of raccoon, deer, elk, and coyote tracks when I roam my conservation property. My favorite was a coyote track inside an elk track on top of a mole hill. Before I earned my BS in environmental science and started roaming around looking for animal signs, I used to wonder where all the animals were. Now I know what to look for and it’s like seeing another world.

  4. Your pictures and discription are really good we have seen bear and mountain lion tracks as well as those animals themselves in Colorado wilderness areas. And we feel very lucky.

  5. As am urban dweller, articles and photos and comments like these are fascinating. Thank you!

  6. Great article, thank you! I don’t really have a favorite but I would love to see a wolf track. I enjoy going for walks after a good rain or snow, it’s fun to track animals that have left their signs and spore. Thank you for the beautiful photographs as well.

  7. Thank you for this very interesting and informative article. As I read, I was reminded of some of the same information I taught my second-graders during a science unit on tracking animals in the winter (we live in northern Illinois). I also gave them Xeroxed copies of several kinds of animal tracks which they could cut out and paste on a separate piece of paper in order to create a “track story”. Several children were quite taken with the idea of a raptor “snow angel” which also showed the “slasher” effects! Thanks again for reminding me of the enjoyment of finding and identifying animal tracks.

  8. I love tracking moose! Their tracks are so deep in the snow they really show how large and magnificent the animals are. We watch wildlife up in Pemberton, British Columbia.