COLUMN: Whose track is that?

THE NATURE OF THINGS COLUMN
By: 
Michele Olson
Jones County Naturalist

     With snow finally arriving in Eastern Iowa comes the opportunity to discover animal tracks. One of my favorite things to do after a snowfall is to look for stories in the snow. A hidden world of backyard discovery awaits those who head outside when the air gets cold and the snow falls. Do you ever check out the tracks in your yard?

     Rabbit tracks are easy to identify with their back feet being much longer than their small front feet. In good snow you would be amazed at how much detail can show up from their fur covered paws to their sharp toenails. Take a close look and you can even tell which way those rascally rabbits were heading. Do not be fooled – their little front feet hit the ground first before their back feet land in the lead. Rabbits like to hide in holes in the snow or under log piles, plants, or debris where they can stay out of sight and keep warm. They like to sunbathe in the wintertime and will have forms out of the wind in sheltered areas with direct sun. If in doubt, their single scattered coco puff-shaped pea-sized droppings will seal the deal of identification.

     Squirrel tracks have a tight pattern with all four feet rather close together as they seemingly bounce across the yard. They almost always head for a tree or other structure they can climb with their tracks disappearing there. They don’t waste too much time wandering either and will make direct bee-lines from foraging to their arboreal abodes.

     Fox tracks are much like those of a small dog, but unlike your dog, each foot is placed directly in front of the other as they travel, leading to an almost straight trail spaced out evenly. In fields, foxes hunt for voles and mice, sometimes digging up mounds of grass or soil as they search for their prey. Foxes will dig multi-entrance dens in wide open areas to live and have their young. Male foxes mark their territory and will visit fenceposts, clods of dirt, or clumps of grass to advertise their territory.

     Whitetail deer have the familiar heart-shaped hoof tracks, like to travel near cover, and will often follow one another creating trails which are easy to spot. If they bed down in your backyard, they will leave an oval shaped area of melted snow where they slept. They are especially drawn to conifers for shelter during harsh winter weather. Sometimes they will nibble a twig or two if you have tasty trees and food is scarce. They like to dig down to grass, plants, or waste crops if the snow is not too deep.

     Mice leave cute little tracks, sometimes with a long tail mark centered between their sets of four little feet. As with most animals, the back feet are larger than the front. If you follow these trails you can find a hole in the snow or a hole in your building where these little rodents might be hiding. Mice and voles can have extensive tunnel systems under deep snow.

     Birds also leave interesting tracks – from the blue jays at your feeders, to the pheasant in your ditch and the geese at your pond. You can identify the bird tracks by their size, shape, and location. Of course, the larger birds’ tracks are much easier to identify. Anyone living near a wooded area has probably observed wild turkey tracks. Turkeys like to travel together in flocks and usually when you find one set of tracks there are more. Turkey tracks can be as long as your hand with four distinct toes. Did you know turkeys can fly? So if you see a spot where the tracks end and wing marks hit the snow, that is where the turkey took to the sky.

     Tracking is a heap of fun and educational! There are many more critters than I have mentioned here that you might have visiting your own yard. I encourage everyone to check out the natural world outside your door. Get outside and have fun! To identify the tracks you find take a picture and then check out your local library or go to https://www.iowadnr.gov/About-DNR/DNR-News-Releases/ArticleID/166/Go-Exploring-14-Iowa-Wildlife-Tracks-to-Look-For.

     

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