Who Made These Tracks? — November - December 1997

Text by Janice Welsh

Illustrations by Amy B. Beyer

black bear track

Walk across the snow, then look behind you. You've left tracks! Your tracks tell which way you were going, what you were wearing on your feet, and how fast you were moving.

Tracks tell a story of where, when, and what animals are moving around or passing through a place. Naturalists, biologists, hunters, and trappers all look for tracks to tell them what kinds of animals are around and what they are doing.

Someone looking for tracks might find very old tracks, such as those of dinosaurs now preserved as fossils in rock. Or a tracker might discover fresh prints, such as those a white-tailed deer made a few hours ago. You can have fun learning how to "read" tracks and identify the animals in your neighborhood.

Look at the following tracks. Read the clues, and see if you can figure out who made these tracks.

Who made these tracks?

hare tracks

Who made these tracks?

mouse tracks

Who made these tracks?

rabbit tracks

Who made these tracks?

squirrel tracks

Who made these tracks?

muskrat tracks

Who made these tracks?

raccoon tracks

Who made these tracks?

grouse tracks

Who made these tracks?

chickadee tracks

Who made these tracks?

deer tracks

Who made these tracks?

horse tracks

Who made these tracks?

bobcat tracks

Who made these tracks?

wolf track

Who made these tracks?

bear tracks

Who made these tracks?

human track

Animal Trackers

To take care of animals in Minnesota, wildlife biologists first need to know which animals live in an area. Many animals stay away from people. Some come out only at night. Looking for their tracks is a good way to tell if they are around.

Since 1976 wildlife biologists have been reading the tracks left by animals during scent station surveys at 4,000 locations around the state. In September and October, they choose spots 3/10 of a mile apart along gravel roads. In each spot, they sift fresh dirt onto the ground in a 3-foot-wide circle. In the circle they put a tablet that smells like animal urine. Curious about the smell, many animals come to sniff and check it out. The next day biologists go back to read the tracks to see what visited during the night - maybe a red fox, skunk, coyote, raccoon, house cat, dog, bobcat, bear, or wolf.

wolf print

How to Read Tracks

Animals move around to find food, shelter, or mates. Some animals spend much of their time alone.

Others, such as white-tailed deer, often gather in small herds and share the same trails. In the winter these trails are excellent places to look for tracks of rabbits, wild turkeys, and other smaller animals.

Use a field guide for track identification, and be sure to:

  • Study the shape of the track
  • Look at how far apart each track is. This distance is called the stride. Your stride is much longer when you run than when you walk.
  • Look at the distance from the outside edge of one footprint to the outside edge of the next footprint. This is called the straddle. It shows how wide the animal is.
  • Count the number of toes. See if the toenails show or not and if the feet look like they are the same or different sizes.

Track Teaching Tools

Animal Tracks of the Great Lakes States, Chris Stall, published by Mountaineers, Seattle, 1989.

A Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior, Donald and Lillian Stokes, published by Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1986.

A Guide to Nature in Winter, Donald Stokes, published by Little, Brown, and Co., 1976.

Whose Track Is It? Richard Headstrom, published by Ives Washburn, New York, 1971.

A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, Olaus Murie, published by Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1954

A complete copy of the article can be found in the November-December 1997 issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, available at Minnesota public libraries.

Janice Welsh is the DNR Project WILD coordinator.

Amy B. Beyer is a DNR graphic arts specialist.