On Track in 2020: Identifying Traces of Wildlife
By Ryan Reed
Now that 2020 has arrived, some will seriously contemplate from where they came, and to where they’re headed this year. In the animal world, there’s not much utility in contemplation, and regarding survival, coming and going can quite literally be the difference between life and death.
As a young boy, the prospect of imminent snow was always an exciting time. It meant snow forts, snowball fights, and snowmen. But it also afforded the chance to track the animals that wandered through the neighborhood. Back then, there wasn’t much to see, really, as I lived on the edge of a cornfield in a typical subdivision. Rabbits and cats were common, along with the occasional squirrel, and rarely, red fox.
The first time I tried to track a rabbit was in a heavy snowstorm, and I recall originally tracking the wrong direction. Learning directionality is a skill acquired through experience.
Is this rabbit coming, or going? (it’s hopping away)
At times I would confuse rabbit tracks with squirrel tracks, given they both leave four tracks per set. Eventually though, squirrel tracks became easy to ID because of their side by side, symmetrical appearance.
Squirrel tracks (going away)
Hunting trips afforded a plethora of new tracks to observe and identify. Some of my favorites to spot are game species like grouse, turkey, bear, and deer.
Grouse tracks (coming toward)
Turkey tracks are like grouse tracks but much larger. (going away, here)
Bear tracks are typically large, with five toes and obvious claws.
Fishing trips always reveal tracks in the mud. A common streamside visitor is the raccoon.
Raccoon tracks often resemble a human hand, with somewhat long, skinny fingers.
In more recent years, experience has taught me how to differentiate between fox and coyote tracks. I’ve also learned to tell the difference between feral cat and bobcat tracks.
There is one thing of which I’m sure. Decoding animal tracks, with the benefit of experience, gets much easier with time.
Figuring out where I’m headed in 2020 and beyond, well; that’s anyone’s guess.
I hope the tracks you make in 2020 lead you where you want to go. Happy New Year!
*Photos for this article provided by the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
About the Author: Ryan Reed is an Environmental Education Specialist in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Forestry. He possesses degrees in Wildlife and Fisheries Science and Wildlife Technology, while currently pursuing a master’s degree in Environmental Pollution Control. He has also worked for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and taught high school sciences for 11 years. He is especially interested in biodiversity and ecology. A lifelong hunting and fishing enthusiast, Ryan resides in Harrisburg, PA. This article was originally written for the Bureau of Forestry’s Forest Fridays e-newsletter.
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