Animals leave unique signatures on the land.
Many animals are secretive, active only under the protective cover of night or when there is no threat from potential predators. Thus, the opportunity to see some of these creatures is rare, with only clue to their presence being the evidence they leave behind food stores, gnawed bark and branches, mounds of dirt, holes in trees and beds in the grass. And, one of the most reliable signs, their tracks.
Look for tracks in snow, mud, dust and sand. A thin layer of wet snow shows the best tracks, but as the snow ages, the edges of the track will soften. Tracks are nearly empty if the snow is hard, crusty or wet, or if strong winds are blowing, filling the tracks in or softening their edges.
Soft mud is an excellent medium for tracks. Mud seldom covers a large area, but it may not last long. Great detail can be seen in the fine grain of dust, rarely extensive in size, but locating sufficient tracks for identification is difficult. The greatest detail of tracks in sand occurs when it is wet. Since sand is usually found along the shores of rivers, and lakes the long, linear nature of such areas allows many tracks to register.
A track is a single imprint. A track pattern is a series of tracks, allowing study of the speed of travel and sequence of steps. Also useful to note for proper identification are the stride, on distance between two tracks, and the straddle, or width of the pattern.
How do you identify a track? Carry a field guide, small notebook and a ruler with you in field to sketch and record key characteristics of your sightings. Note the habitat where prints are found, and consider the types of animals that reside in these areas. The speed at which an animal is moving can be determined by the track pattern. Typical descriptors of track patterns are bounding, galloping hopping, running or trotting. Measure the length and width of the print, count the number of toes, and note whether or not claw marks are visible.
Deer have two toes; rabbits, cats, foxes and cayotes have four. Animals leaving prints containing five toes include the weased, mink, shrunk, otter, raccoon, opossum, muskrat and beaver. If the track pattern shows tracks with five toeson the back foot and four on the front, it was left by a
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mouse, vole, shrew, chipmunk, squirrel or woodchuck. Not only do mammals leave tracks, but birds, frogs, toads, snakes and insects can be identified by their tracks.
Does the track indicate a heel mark? How far apart are the toe prints? Are the tracks alternate or parallel? Follow the trail for some distance for additional clues to help with your identification. Do the tracks lead to an underground burrow? Do the tracks end at the base of a tree, indicating the animal left the ground? Do the tracks lead into the water?
Some of the most visible tracks in the field are left by the white-tailed deer, coyote, raccoon, Canada goose and wild turkey.
The white-tailed deer lives in woodlands, open areas and along the edges of two habitats. Their heart-shaped, pointed tracks fall in an alternate pattern, with the prints of the back feet falling in front of the front prints. If the ground surface is soft, dew claw (the vestigial first and fourth toes) prints may register as a smaller set of round marks. Deer tracks are 2 to 3.5 inches long.
Coyotes commonly are found in grasslands and woodlands where they hunt for small rodents. The coyote leaves a 2.5- to 3-inch oval track that includes claw marks on the center two toes. When walking, coyotes leave a trail of prints 8 to 16 inches apart, as compared with 2.5 to 10 feet apart when trotting. A coyote trail has an alternate track pattern. If tracking a coyote in heavy snow, you may see a dragline left by its tail.
Raccoons are common throughout Illinois, residing in nearly all habitats, including cities. Their tracks are most often found along the banks of rivers, streams, lakes and ponds and are among the easiest to identify because they look much like a human hand print. The front feet prints are 2 to 3 inches long, with the hind prints approximately one-half inch longer. Claw marks are visible on all five toes, of both the front and back feet. The front feet leave tracks in their entirety, while the back feet do not leave heel prints.
The Canada goose is a familiar sight around large bodies of water and is one of the most common species of waterfowl nesting in Illinois. The prints of a goose are 4 to 5 inches in
length and are 5 to 7 inches apart when the goose is walking. These huge, webbed prints, left along the muddy bank of a lake or pond, often show the imprints of three toes, but the webbing may not be imprinted. The goose's feet are pointed inward when walking and leave a pigeon-toed imprint.
Illinois' largest game bird is the wild turkey. Over the past three decades, populations of this bird have exploded, and it is now found in woodlands and agricultural fields throughout most of the state. As a ground bird, turkeys leave a set of "walking" tracks, compared with the "hopping" pattern left by a perching bird. Turkey tracks show three long toes, with the longer middle toe 2.5 to 4.5 inches long. Having keen eyesight, the wild turkey takes off on a run up to 18 miles per hour, leaving a trail of tracks with 4-foot-long strides.
Since tracks age and fade with time, capture the moment. Venture out when the weather provides the greatest chance for tracks to be left. An early morning outing may bring the greatest rewards for learning about critters that were active the previous night. To find the best tracks, check sheltered areas protected from wind, sun and rain.
Above all else, when in the field, move quietly and keep your eyes open and ears cocked for animal sounds. If you're lucky, you just may trail the animal to within eyesight!