Nature Nearby: Who went there? Tracking the tracks

By FRED SEITZ — The recent rains and spotty snows have provided a marvelous opportunity to see the passing activities of our furry and feathered friends. Whether in mud or snow, animals’ prints, diggings and other marks have been more obvious than they may be in drier times.

Our own boot and shoe prints, and occasional treads of cyclists, are the most frequent and noticeable markings in snow and mud. Paw prints from our accompanying dog friends are a close second.

When identifying animal prints, trackers consider details such as the number and shape of toes, the presence or absence of claws, and gait patterns. Dog tracks, for example, show four toes, a triangular-shaped heel pad, and often claw marks. In contrast, cat prints show toes but usually no claws.

A commonality between human and dog tracks is the irregularity of gait patterns. If you compare these tracks to the marks of our non-domestic local canine, the red fox, you can see that the fox’s tracks usually occur in a single line, as it tends to place its following paws in the marks from its front paws. In contrast, our domestic dogs our stumbling selves are rarely so precise, and we leave somewhat messier trails.

Less prominent, but more abundant than fox tracks are the marks left by birds, with leading claws and a single following claw. Crows’ tracks are some of the most frequent and obvious, but these birds are not our only feathered friends whose prints are on display. Newly fallen snow often features an array of prints left by birds searching for their next meal.

Ubiquitous squirrels leave bounding prints in mud and snow, with their five-toed hind feet almost always marking ahead of their four-toed front ones. Mice and voles occasionally scamper on the surface of snow, too, but their prints are smaller and their bounds shorter. They also leave small tunnels in snow (and grass) as they move below surfaces in search of their daily repasts.

Deer, who are widespread in our Hyattsville neighborhood, leave obvious and recognizable heart-shaped hoof prints. Because their hind feet tend to step on top of their front tracks, their tracks sometimes appear distorted.

As the days become warmer, close observers will be able to see snakes’ swayed tracks and the leap marks left by our local frogs and toads, and even grasshoppers.

Donald and Lillian Stokes’ Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior is an excellent guide for track identification, and apps like iTrack Wildlife or MyNature Animal Tracks are especially handy in the field.  

While we’re often in a rush to reach our destinations, slowing down — and looking down — reminds us of the fascinating company we keep.

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