Wild Animals Leave Clues to Their Presence
Animal tracks in the snow at Volo Bog in Ingleside
by Sheryl DeVore
In natural areas, on driveways or in backyards, rabbits, mice, coyotes, foxes, birds and maybe even a mink leave signs of their presence with footprints in the snow. “Winter is a beautiful time to go out animal tracking,” says Stacy Iwanicki, natural resources coordinator with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “There’s no worry about mosquitos and ticks—and everybody needs to get more fresh air in the winter time,” she says. “Plus, it’s fun to guess what’s been out while we were asleep.” In winter, Iwanicki, who lives in McHenry County, tracks animals by their footprints and their scat, or droppings. “One of my favorite places to track is my own driveway. When you have an overnight snow that ends early enough in the night, you can see in the morning who’s been crossing your driveway,” she says.
Tristan Gooley, author of The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, agrees. “Fresh snow and cold air mean that nothing can pass without leaving glaring prints,” he writes. Gooley suggests in his book to look where animals may have been seeking food and shelter. Perhaps there is an open field that leads to a pond with some open water in winter. An animal may have crossed the field at night to get a drink. Walking a sandy beach early in the morning in winter is also a good idea; for example at Illinois Beach State Park, in Zion, or along one of Chicago’s harbors such as Montrose or Monroe.
Iwanicki suggests beginning in the backyard or on the driveway to identify the most common critters. Animal trackers can take photos or draw what they see on their driveway, then check online or in a book to compare. She routinely finds rabbit and squirrel foot prints on her driveway in winter. Both rabbits and squirrels have large hind feet that land right in front of their much smaller front feet with a big space in between, she says. “Rabbits’ front feet land one-in-front-of-the-other, while squirrels’ front feet land side-by-side,” Iwanicki explains. “If the track goes to the base of a tree, you know that’s no rabbit, it’s likely a squirrel.” Mouse tracks appear like miniature squirrel tracks.
She occasionally sees fox tracks on her driveway. She immediately recognizes them as being tracks of canines that have four toes and nail prints. Other canines include domesticated dogs and coyotes. Feline tracks of house cats or wild cats typically don’t have nail prints.
Iwanicki explains ways to separate the three canine tracks. “Dog tracks often go all over the place willy-nilly. Fox tracks are more purposeful. They are in a narrow zig-zag that appears as almost a straight line. They place their hind foot directly where their front foot was. It makes for a neat and tidy pattern.” Coyote tracks are larger than fox tracks and their front prints are larger than those in the rear, according to WildlifeLandTrust.org. Their tracks are also more oblong than those of dogs, and their claws are less prominent.
Raccoons and opossums can also be identified by their telltale tracks. A raccoon’s front prints look like a baby’s hand. The rear foot looks like a little human foot with long toes. Raccoons have five toes on both front and rear feet. Opossums also have five fingers that look like a human hand, but they can be separated from a raccoon by their opposable thumbs on their hind feet. The hind foot often lands up against the back of the front foot with toes of both radiating outward, giving the combination the appearance of a flower. That’s why Iwanicki calls these tracks “possum flowers.”
Deer tracks are easily recognized—they have two toes that curve together forming a print shaped like a heart. Trackers can follow deer prints in the snow to a spot where the mammals sometimes rest in a clearing.
Birds also leave their footprints behind in snow, sand and mud. Tracks arranged in pairs with each foot next to the other indicates a bird that often perches in trees, such as a goldfinch, chickadee or cardinal, according to the National Audubon Society. Bird tracks that look staggered could belong to birds that forage on the ground such as an American robin or song sparrow.
Iwanicki also tracks animals by their scat. She maintains a collection at Volo Bog State Natural Area, and is willing to show those interested. It includes dried droppings of deer, rabbit, coyote, fox and mouse. “When I find scat, I let it dry out. I put it in a Ziplock and then in another Ziplock and make sure to wash my hands thoroughly,” she says.
“Fox and coyote scat have hair and are twisted on the end. Coyote scat is bigger than fox scat,” she says. “If it’s smaller than my thumb, it’s fox scat. If it’s about the size of my thumb, it’s coyote scat. Everyone’s thumb is different, so look up the size and compare to yours,” Iwanicki recommends.
“Mink scat has some similarities to coyote and fox, only it’s darker and oilier, with pieces strung together,” she says. “Mink scat is like the mink itself. It’s long, dark, skinny and shiny. We sometimes find mink scat along the boardwalk at Volo Bog in the marsh.”
Iwanicki says, “At the end of February when there’s a thaw, you can find lots of scat.” She often does a public scat walk event at the end of February (FriendsOfVoloBog.org).
Beaver scat, which is not easy to find on land, looks like a “ginormous cocoa puff,” Iwanicki says. “A group and I were out once during the day near water and saw logs beavers had been chewing and wood chips. Then we saw some beaver scat. It was exciting. Most of the time, the scat is in the water, where it quickly disintegrates.”
Evidence of animals in the wild can be joyful. For example, signs of beavers indicate that they’ve made a nice comeback after humans stopped overhunting and trapping them, Iwanicki says. “As long as beavers aren’t causing flooding or cutting down trees we don’t want cut, having them in your nature preserve can be an asset,” she says. “The water they trap makes for good habitat for other species like ducks, frogs and fish.”
Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature. She also writes nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications.
Some Recommended Animal Tracking Resources
Field Guide to Illinois Mammal Tracks, by Kendall Annetti:
Scats and Tracks of the Midwest:
A Field Guide to the Signs of Seventy Wildlife Species, by James Halfpenny
Tracking and the Art of Seeing,
by Paul Rezendes
Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks, by Olaus J. Murie and
Dr. Mark Elbroch
The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, by Tristan Gooley