At this time of year Ohio’s woods may seem silent and deep, but tracks in the snow tell a different tale. Why not unravel the secretive world of winter wildlife by becoming a nature detective? All you need is an adventuresome spirit, a blanket of snow and the great Ohio outdoors!
It’s exciting to find the trail of a wild creature. And, you don’t have to be an expert to have fun tracking. Knowing what wildlife is likely prowling nearby and having a basic understanding of their survival needs is all that’s necessary to begin reading the stories they’ve left you in the snow.
Like a thumbprint, every animal leaves a track that is distinctive to its kind. The best place to start studying these tracks is in your own backyard. You’ll probably find prints of squirrels, birds, raccoons - and even the neighbor’s cat. As you examine the different tracks, note their size, number of toes and track pattern.
Next, it’s time to get outside the city limits where you can explore a wide range of animal tracks. In fact, at parks and nature preserves, where manmade trails are common, don’t be surprised to find evidence of animals using these same paths. Just like you and I, animals appreciate an easy route, especially when there’s snow on the ground.
Keep in mind that animals don’t just wander about aimlessly. Whether on a trail, woodlot or meadow, their tracks generally lead to a place of food, water or shelter. The best tracking environments are areas where two habitats intersect, such as forests and fields, or fields and streams. Known as transition zones, these intersections support a variety of wildlife species.
If you want to find tracks, then think like an animal and put yourself into their “paws,” so to speak. Smaller mammals - often food sources for large wildlife species - sensibly stay close to cover for safety. For instance, a cottontail rabbit foraging for food remains near its burrow or a protective brush pile in case a hungry hawk or coyote is out hunting. In winter, cottontails eat raspberry and blackberry plants, dry hay, corn and the bark of tree saplings. To get from place to place safely, they use travel lanes, which include brushy fence rows, corn rows and stream banks.
Red fox and coyote are also very active in winter. With a fondness for rabbits, mice and voles, they will have their noses in nearly every corner of Ohio sniffing out their next meal. Yet when times are lean, these canines adapt their diet to include a variety of plants.
Ohio’s wildlife can be divided into four groups, which include:
Two-toed - white-tailed deer
Four-toed - rabbits, coyotes, foxes, bobcats
Four-toed on the front and five-toed on the hind feet - mice, squirrels
By applying these facts and observing nearby signs, you can dramatically narrow the possibilities of what animal left its print in the snow. Be on the lookout for gnawed twigs, tree scrapings and animal droppings, known as scat.
For tracking purposes, the best snow is not too deep or fluffy. And don’t rely on your memory to recall the details of the prints you’ve discovered. A good nature detective will take along a notepad and pencil to make sketches of imprints and jot notes that can help solve the track mystery. A short ruler is another useful tool, allowing you to measure both the size of the print and the distance between the tracks.
More than 90 state wildlife areas are scattered across Ohio, offering excellent opportunities for animal track investigating and wildlife viewing. Many local park systems have winter hikes highlighting animal tracks and signs.
Not only is tracking fun, it gets us outdoors during a time of year when we spend far too much time on the couch. Even when identification remains a mystery, just knowing that we’ve come across the path of a wild creature is thrilling all on its own.