Animal Tracks Identification Guide From Birds to Bears
Looking for animal tracks is an ancient activity that was first practiced by people who depended on hunting and gathering for survival. Never get close to a wild animal even if it looks friendly, or tries to approach you - if the footprints lead to a den or resting place, do not go near!
Soft, damp soil is ideal for identifying the tracks of animals with paws like dogs. A thin layer of snow is perfect when looking for tracks made by bigger animals like bears, moose, and mountain lions. If you see mud, there may be a body of water nearby which is a great place to look for tracks made by animals like birds, ducks, beavers, and turtles. Think about what kind of animals live in the area. This will help narrow the field of identification.
The dog family (fox, wolf, or coyote) and cat family (bobcat and lynx) have 4 toes on the front and hind feet. Canines have larger front feet than hind feet.
If the paw prints have small triangular marks in front of it, those are claw marks. Raccoons, skunks, coyotes, foxes, and dogs leave claw marks. Cats retract their claws when they walk or run, so you won't usually find claw marks with bobcats, lynx, or cats.
Rodents (mice, voles, chipmunks, squirrels, woodchucks, muskrats, or porcupines) have 4 toes on the front feet and 5 toes on the hindfoot.
If the animal track has 5 toes on the front and back feet it's from a raccoon, weasel, badger, mink, skunk, otter, bear, beaver, or opossum.
Ungulates (deer, moose, or elk) have a split hoof with 2 toes that leave a distinct imprint.
Squirrels leave interesting tracks because their larger hind feet land ahead of their smaller front feet. It looks like the front feet are side by side. Rabbit tracks are different because the hind feet land ahead of the front feet, but the front feet are not found right next to each other.
Animal Tracking Tips
- Animal tracks are the easiest to find in snow, mud, soft soil, and sand - tracks of the same animal can look different in soil, mud, sand, or snow. They will also vary with the animal's size, age, weight, and movements).
- Look at the size of the track and make note of the size.
- Count the number of toes and look for heel and claw marks.
- Measure the length and width of several prints. On many mammals, the front feet are larger because they support more of the animal's weight.
- Measure the stride (length between prints) and the straddle (width between prints), to give you an idea of how fast the animal was moving.
- Track early in the morning, or late in the day, when shadows make prints easier to see.
- Look for animal waste droppings called scat.
- Some animals (like cats) may leave claw marks on tree stumps, or the ground when roaming their territory.
- Bigger animals like bears, moose, and wolves may leave a trail of damaged vegetation.