by Chad Clifford

(ed note: See Chad’s other tracking posts in our archive. Chad is hosting a outdoor tracking series at Carp Ridge during March 2012. Here’s a link to a poster.)

Identifying tracks to a certain species is much easier if you first look for certain clues.

Those clues are not usually found in the track. Only 1 in 100 tracks show clear detail (like toes or nail marks). By far, the two most useful clues to look for are (a) the track pattern of the animal and (b) the overall trail width that the pattern makes.

The diagram shown here of ‘track patterns’ highlights both. Using only these two clues, and with a little practice, you’ll know the difference between the mouse and vole, or even tracks that are weeks old and covered with snow. Of course, there are many other clues to be found, but it is with the ‘patterns’ and that we will start.

Track Patterns
Having four legs and an ability to change its speed, identifying track patterns is somewhat complicated. However, in an effort to not waste energy, there are distinct patterns that the various species use ‘most’ of the time.

Hence, it is useful to group the animals by their ‘regular’ walking pattern. There are four basic patterns a tracker should memorize. The vast majority of tracks you come across will fit into one of these patterns: 1) Slow Walking, 2) Diagonal, 3) Bound, and 4) Gallop. Let’s consider each pattern along with examples of the animals that use each. An advanced study would further consider the patterns found as the animals speed or slow their pace.

Slow walking pattern
Animals that frequent this style of walking include the wide-bodied, slow-moving types such as the: beaver, muskrat, skunk, porcupine, bear, and racoon. These animals seem to waddle along with their wide bodies shifting from side to side. Basically, the legs on one side of the animal tend to move together, followed by the slumbering of the two legs on the other side.

I strongly suggest you get down on all fours and try this type of walk for yourself — it will make more sense! To look at it, this pattern is somewhat of a scattering of track s– almost defying any pattern at all. Most animals in this category have large, soft, padded feet that are somewhat unique in themselves.

TIP: the rear feet of many animals in this category look similar to human feet. That is, elongated with a long and narrow heel.

These soft padded feet allow them to walk through the woods quietly. One summer day while quietly picking edible plants along a ridge, I heard the muffled ‘snap’ of a dry branch. My first thought was “bear”. I’m not paranoid of bears, but I was on a trail that bears commonly used in this area.

What really signalled me to the thought a bear was that it was a loud sound, indicating a large animal and the sound of the snap was muffled — reminding me of the sound of snapped twigs under my soft moccasins. A deer would not make a sound like this with its sharp hooves. I stood up immediately. A cub and I stared at each other for a moment then it turned and scrambled up a tree. What a day for nature observations. . . .

Diagonal pattern
This next group of animals include deer, cat, and dog families. For example: deer, moose, caribou, elk, and fox, wolf, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion and dog. To ‘see’ the diagonal pattern, you must stand back and see the imaginary centre line with foot tracks diagonally crossing over it to form the pattern.

Try diagonal walking yourself by getting down once more on all fours and move your front-right and your rear-left leg at the same time followed by your front-left and rear-right moving together. For the animals that use this pattern, the rear-right foot lands on top of but slightly behind where the front-right foot was a moment earlier. Take a closer look at the track patterns diagram again.

TIP: the front feet of the diagonal walkers are considerably larger than their rear feet. Now you can see and show to others, the front, rear, right and left feet of the deer tracks in your backyard. Won’t you be the envy of your friends!?

Deer have keen senses and they usually know you are coming long before you see them. Hence, they have the time to quietly stalk away undetected. One mid-summer day, on a stroll along an old bush trail I came to a clearing. I had the sudden feeling like something was close or watching me. I assumed that someone let my dog out of the house and it was now catching up to me. She hates to miss a good walk. I looked behind but nothing was there. I kept still for a moment. Then continued on into the clearing.

At the far end of a clearing I heard the distinct sound of a white tail leaping off accompanied by the warning snorts they let off. I looked back to the other end of the clearing where I felt that something was watching me. That deer would have been be able to just see me from where it was, but just barely. Deer are very curious creatures and will sometimes circle around to see what was disturbing their area. It is possible to cut them off and get another glimpse in these situations, which is what I did. I turned right, headed into the bush for 100 metres and sat down quietly. Sure enough, the deer came back, but just a little out of sight.

Bound pattern.
Bounders include the weasel family such as the: least weasel, ermine or short-tail weasel, long tail weasel, fisher, mink, and marten. These animals have long bodies and short legs. Look for five toes. When you see one moving along, they tend to look a bit like a sewing machine needle as their body hunches together and then elongates in quick successions. As they move, the front, two feet land first followed by the rear, two feet that land just behind the front. Some overlapping of the tracks may take place. Notice the unique and offset pattern all four feet make together!

TIP: Look at the imaginary centre line of the track pattern. Notice that the sets of tracks stay true to the centreline and are not diagonal across it. Believe it or not, old snow-covered tracks of a small weasel weighing well under 1/2 pounds can be confused with the track of a 150 pound deer. This is because the four feet that land together of the weasel are about the same size as one deer hove and the distance between the tracks can be similar between the two species.

Moreover, in cold weather and on certain types of terrain, deer tracks do not sink much and in softer snow conditions, the weasel can sink a fair amount. In older tracks, you don’t know conditions at the time the track was made. The trick is to look for the pattern — diagonal or bound. It will be a humbling experience to confuse the two species — just don’t tell your friends when it happens!

I find weasels are exciting creatures to track. They range in size from the least weasel that can chase mice through their own holes, to the fisher that is renowned for having porcupine as a regular part of its diet. On one occasion, I was was following a long tailed weasel track through some freshly fallen snow. The weasel was doing its typical routine of dodging around trees sniffing out the scent of rodents.

As the trail entered a marshy area, the tracks exploded in the snow as it accelerated abruptly, heading somewhere with urgent speed. The tracks which usually fall only several inches apart were now falling many feet apart from each other — quite an accomplishment for a skinny little weasel not much bigger than a chipmunk. I knew something was up. My questions were soon answered as soon after, a pile of blue and grey feathers gently blew around in the wind.

Gallop pattern.
This is an interesting group that includes small critters like mice, voles, and shrews, chipmunks, squirrels, and larger animals like rabbits and hares. This group seems to speed along the forest floor. Their track pattern shows the front feet landing closely together and the rear feet coming around the outside and pass where the front feet landed. Try this yourself and notice how much faster it is compared to the other patterns.

Somewhat unique to this group is the large size of the rear feet compared to the front feet. Just visualize the snowshoe hare’s large rear feet. Don’t forget to look at the overall pattern and the imaginary centre line. The patterns flow in a straight line like the bounders. However, the big difference is in the shape of the four feet together. There are ever so many interesting, little tips with this group that make identifying each track a treat.

TIP: if the front, two feet land almost exactly side by side you are looking at a mouse, not a vole of similar size. The mouse also shows long tail drag marks. Also, the squirrels front feet tend to land beside each other — useful for climbing trees .

A bit of animal trivia: The shrew has a poisonous bite. I’ve seen video clips of a shrew attacking a mouse. It was a short fight as the shrew quickly nipped the leg of the mouse and backed away. The mouse soon lost control of its body. About the same size as a humming bird, the shrews are a treat to track. The tracks can be so faint in the snow that unless you have proper light conditions, you may not even see the tracks when they are pointed out. They have a gallop walking pattern just like the mice, voles, chipmunks and rabbits.