Stories in the Snow

It’s been a snowy February. But it’s late winter and there is a thaw beginning this week with daytime temperatures in the 40s (4 to 10 degrees C). While the snow remains, it’s a good time to take a walk and see what wildlife has been up to.

Many mammals in our area are active all winter long. During snowstorms, White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) gather or “yard up” under coniferous (cone-bearing) trees like pines (Pinus spp.) and spruces (Picea spp.), where the green leaves block snow from accumulating below. Their hoof prints are easy to tell apart from other tracks. The hoofs are from 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5 centimeters) long, and wider at the bottom than the top, so this pyramid-shaped track points in the direction of travel. Follow the tracks and you’ll find they are going to young trees and shrubs to nibble on buds and bark. Many New England states are overpopulated with deer. Once there is snow on the ground, you really can see how many are around and where their trails are. You’ll then think it’s time to put repellent on the buds and branches of your small trees!

White-tailed Deer tracks point toward the direction of travel, so this deer was traveling toward the bottom of the photo. Photo by Virginia State Parks staff, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

After a storm, and when the temperatures warm up a bit, Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) come out of their tree cavity roosts and nesting sites to look for their caches of buried nuts. Occasionally you’ll see a hole in the snow where they’ve dug to get at them. If you spot lots of square-shaped tracks that go from one tree to another, you’ve found this animal. In the squirrel’s track, you’ll see that the larger back feet are in front with the smaller front paws directly behind. This is because, when the squirrel runs, the front feet thrust forward and the back feet land in front and afterward.

The tracks of the Eastern Gray Squirrel are square-shaped and are usually found going from tree to tree. Photo by
Ryan Hodnett, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The track of a White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) is tiny, only one-quarter inch (0.63 centimeter) wide, and look like squirrel tracks, as it is square-shaped too. Mice will hop or run on the snow’s surface, but then often tunnel underneath to the subnivean zone, the layer between the ground and the snow, where they look for seeds and other food.

The T-shaped tracks of the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) are unique. These rabbits place their 1 inch (2.5 centimeter) front feet one in front of another, then their large, 3 inch (7.5 centimeter) long back feet pass over their front feet to make its distinctive track.

Notice the large hind feet on the track of this Eastern Cottontail Rabbit. When running, the rabbit’s large hind feet extend over the smaller front feet. Photo by Ian Muttoo from Mississauga, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Most of the members of the malodorous mustelid family (that’s the musky-smelling weasel family) also leave square tracks, but unlike squirrels, their front and back feet are about the same size and placed down in pairs. You can tell the small Short-tailed Weasel (Mustela erminea) from the medium-sized American Mink (Neovison vison) and the large North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis) by the track size, the straddle (distance between the feet), and stride (distance from one track to another). Look for tracks of mink and otter along streams and ponds, where they hunt for fish and crayfish. Both mink and otter are playful and will create snow slides on small hills near water.

American mink tracks, like most Mustelids, usually show the feet side by side. Notice the claws on each foot.
Cards are from Trakards for North American Mammals by David Brown. Photo by Gail Cameron.

The Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) listens for mice under the snow. When the snow is really deep and powdery, a fox will jump up and plunge into it vertically headfirst to grab a mouse. Like the tracks of other canines (members of the dog family) whose claws are not retractable, a fox’s track will show all its claws. Red Fox tracks average 2 inches (5 centimeters) long and wide. Foxes and coyotes are all diagonal walkers, placing their back feet in the same place as their front feet.

Unlike domestic dog tracks, which show the animal going back and forth and here and there, Red Fox are more determined and their tracks often show them traveling in a straight line. Photo by Gail Cameron.
North American River Otters love to slide down hills in the snow. Photo by Gail Cameron.

Eastern Coyote (Canis latrans) tracks are larger than those of the Red Fox, averaging 2.5 inches (6.35 centimeters) long by 2 inches (5 centimeters) wide. You can distinguish fox and coyote tracks from domestic dog tracks by the evidence of the animal’s behavior. Foxes and coyotes are determined when trotting and hunting, and walk in a straight line. In contrast, domestic dogs playfully wander to and fro, examining and smelling their surroundings. You can see that behavior in their tracks. Look for human tracks near them too.

The tracks of Eastern Coyote, like most members of the dog family, show their claws in snow or mud. Notice the triangular heel pad with two lobes at the bottom. Photo by Unknown (Fish & Wildlife Service employee), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Bobcats (Lynx rufus), like coyotes, foxes, and deer, are diagonal walkers too. How do you tell Bobcat tracks from those of coyotes, which are close in size? Unlike members of the dog family, a Bobcat has retractable claws, so you won’t see them in the track. They also have three-lobed heel pads, compared to two-lobed coyote heel pads. Bobcat tracks are slightly smaller than those of coyotes, about 1.5 inches long (3.8 centimeters) and one and three-eighths inches (3.5 centimeters) wide.

Bobcats have retractable claws so they won’t show in a track. You can just barely make out the three-lobed heel pad in this photo. Photo by Joe Decruyenaere, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Even birds of prey leave signs in the snow. Look for a flurry of wing marks in the snow where a hawk or owl has grabbed a bird or mouse.

A real clue found in the snow. A hawk has landed and grabbed a Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus).

Be on the lookout for the stories that the snow can tell you.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

10 thoughts on “Stories in the Snow

  1. This is just what we needed after all that snow! We had a coyote walk through our yard here in an East Haven neighborhood. Linda

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  2. You have described tracks so well! Now I’ll be better able to recognize the tracks I see around my house in New Haven. I lost your previous post. Is there a way to retrieve it?

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  3. Very interesting as usual, Jim. I sent you an interesting story in messenger, so please check that. I’ve never heard of that kind of cardinal before. Cheers!

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  4. Hi Jim, I loved this article! My kids and I were always trying to identify tracks in the snow. Some of these tracks are very similar. (Coyote, domestic dog, bobcat, etc) Your details on the different tracks are very useful and I really liked that you explained animal behavior as well to help determine the tracks – walking straight, diagonal, wandering. Excellent. Thank you.

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