Tracking for Beginners

Two sets of snowy paw prints, one small and one large, cross at an angle in a forest. Some human boot prints are also visible.
Otter and coyote tracks cross in the winter woods.

Arguably one of humankind’s oldest skills, tracking animals was once fundamental to survival in hunter-gatherer societies across the globe. Many cultures still practice tracking as a traditional way of life or a hobby, but not all modern trackers are looking to kill their quarry. Many people use it as an opportunity to simply see and appreciate otherwise elusive wildlife, or to enjoy the challenge of tracking an animal on its own home turf. There’s no better time of year to start tracking than winter, when a fresh snowfall reveals lots of prints that are easy to see and recognize. However, as snow conditions constantly change especially here in New England tracks often get indistinct making tracking a challenge.  It’s also important to look at the overall track pattern and even the surrounding habitat. This can give you clues as to which animal made those tracks. 

Gray Squirrel and Eastern Cottontail – Gray squirrels may be the most commonly seen mammals for many New England residents. Although they may spend periods of severe weather hidden away in tree hollows and nests, squirrels remain active all winter long, and their tracks are easy to see in snowy yards and woodlands. Squirrels move by hopping, and their tracks can look surprisingly rabbit-like with long hind feet usually printing in front of their short forepaws, creating a double-exclamation mark (!!) shape. 

Gray squirrel tracks in snow. Note the five-toed hind feet that print in front to form a double-exclamation mark (!!) shape. Photo credit: Audrey JM, Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Rabbits, too, commonly roam suburban yards and brushy areas. Their prints are the same shape as squirrel prints, which can make distinguishing them tricky. Take heart, however: rabbit hind feet are twice as long as squirrel hind feet (3 to 4 inches long for rabbits, 1.5 to 2 inches for gray squirrels) and where squirrels have five toes on their hind feet, rabbits have only four. Bear in mind that prints in deep snow may not show toe-prints clearly, and that melting and re-freezing can make prints appear larger than they were when fresh. 

Cottontail rabbit tracks with a U.S. nickel for scale. Note the four-toed symmetrical rear paw prints (no “thumb) and large size compared to squirrel tracks. Photo credit: Bryant Olsen. Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Both squirrels and rabbits leave other signs for an alert tracker during wintertime. Squirrels famously bury acorns for winter sustenance, and when they need to get those acorns from under the snow, they burrow a tunnel down to get them. Circular openings in the snow 3-4″ wide with sprays of kicked snow around them are a likely sign of squirrel activity. Rabbits, on the other hand, often eat the bark of young trees for winter forage. Look for young saplings and new growth with the bark totally stripped within a few inches of the ground. 

White-tailed Deer and Moose – New England has two representatives of the deer family: the ubiquitous white-tailed deer and the majestic yet retiring moose. For all their obvious differences in size, these animals leave fairly similar tracks: paired tapered “teardrop” shapes from their split hooves, which together give the appearance of a heart divided down the middle. White-tailed deer moving at any speed tent to overlap their tracks, with the rear foot printing partially over the front foot’s print. Moose occasionally do this as well, but more often, moose tracks are separated by at least an inch or two and easily separable. Naturally, moose tracks are much larger: 5 or 6 inches each, whereas the typical white-tailed deer will have a print just over three inches from back to front. White-tailed deer will also sometimes leave two dots behind a forehood print from their dewclaws, which moose less often do, and their dewclaws leave crescent-shaped prints quite far behind the hoof.

A white-tailed deer hoofprint in deep snow. Photo credit: Connecticutbirder on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 License.
A sapling tree is shown with a foot-long vertical scrape where the bark is mostly missing about two feet off the ground.
A deer antler rub on a young tree.

In winter, both deer and moose subsist chiefly on woody browse, especially the tender buds and tips of new growth. White-tailed deer will munch on dead grasses and other ground cover for food as long as snow doesn’t prevent them, and moose use their size and strength to bend (an occasionally break) small and mid-sized trees in order to eat the newest, most tender growth at the tops of the twigs. During the spring, when deer and moose alike are growing new antlers, they will often use small trees as “rubs” to scrape the velvet – the vascular tissue that nourishes the growing antlers, then dies off – away from their antlers to polish them up for battle. A deer “rub” on a small tree is pictured at left.

Coyotes, foxes, and dogs – One of the most common conundrums of nature lovers out for a winter walk – are those four-toed prints from a dog being walked, or a wild coyote or fox? Telling canid tracks apart can be difficult, especially given the large amount of variation among domestic dog breeds, but there are a few tricks you can use. More informative than the tracks themselves is often the full pattern of the animal’s trail. Dogs out for a walk often wander to and from, doubling back frequently or waiting for their human companions to catch up. Wild animals usually travel at a steady trot in a straight line, not wasting time or energy with frequent stops or meandering wanders. 

Coyote and dog tracks are shown side-by-side, emphasizing the clean shape and X-shaped gaps between toes of coyote tracks.
Image credit: Shadow dog001 on Wikipedia. Used under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

When it comes to identifying individual tracks, look to the arrangement of toes and shape of the heel pad as your best clues. Coyotes print with their toes held symmetrically, so much so that you can usually draw an X through the center of their prints and not collide with any part of it. Coyotes and gray foxes (but not red) have heel prints on their hind feet that show two “wings” to either side – imagine the little hurricane symbol that weather forecasters use. Red foxes have a ridge on their heel pads that forms a dark, visible “V” shape in their tracks, which is usually detectable in snow and soft mud. 

One of the resources many trackers use is the book Tracking and the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes.  It not only highlights tracks but scats and signs that are also a vital component of wildlife tracking.  Habitats and behavior are highlighted as well, giving a holistic view of tracking. 

Want more tracking tips? Have specific tracking questions? Leave us a comment below!