There is an added bonus to walking in the winter that you might not think of at first–the animals that use that same trail as you every day are no longer invisible. They leave undeniable proof of their presence.
On a winter walk once, my kids and I found a set of dog-like tracks and followed them. They meandered into a clearing, and there we found a mess of bird tracks, some wing marks in the snow, lots more dog tracks… and a dead magpie torn to pieces We tried to piece together a couple different theories that could explain what could have happened based on just the tracks. And we left with a few good stories.
Not only is tracking fun, but it gets you outdoors in the winter, when finding things to do outside with your kids can be a daunting task. Even if you never get around to actually identifying any of the tracks, just knowing that you’ve come across the path of a wild creature is pretty thrilling.
It’s bonafide detective work, and what kids isn’t going to love that?
If you want to actually attempt to identify the tracks here are a few tips:
- The best snow is not too deep or too fluffy, but it’s fresh. You’ve got to get to the tracks before they start to melt.
- Get a track ID book. Peterson’s Field Guide is a good one, or the Peterson’s FlashGuide to Animal Tracks(a shorter more portable version of the most common tracks, better for young kids). Or there is a track ID app as well as a little online guide. Tracks, Scats, and Signs is very approachable for young kids and there are quite a few story books about tracks in the snow. I particularly like Whose Tracks are These? And Big Tracks, Little Tracks is also quite good.
- 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.
But since tracks are not always easy to identify you can still look for other clues.
- How many toes did it have?
- Was two-or four-footed?
- Which direction was it going?
- What kind of pattern did it leave? Was it a waddler, galloper, bounder, or a walker? (also check out this track pattern sheet). Rabbits are especially fascinating, and it is easy to tell if they were walking or running.
- What other animals might it have encountered?
- Did the animal have a tail that dragged in the snow?
- Did it go underneath a tree branch or over it? This can tell you something about the size of the animal. Also, look on those tree branches for a bit of hair. Not uncommon if the animal frequents a particular trail.
- Has it come this way more than once? I love finding a trail that is clearly well-used and thinking about where the animal is going to or coming from.
- Did it every stop to rest?
The questions are endless, and so are the stories that go along with the tracks. Putting together a complete image of what happened based on the clues left in the snow is excellent stimulation for a young mind. Prod your little detective to recreate the scene–was it night or day? Were there other sounds? What was the animal doing out and about?
With a little background knowledge, you can give clues to help them figure out the story. For example, foxes, coyotes, and many owls mate in the winter months of January and February and may be looking for a companion. Rabbits often are forced to eat bark and shrubby material and have preferences for certain types of bark. In contrast squirrels eat pine cones and mushrooms and nuts. Look for evidence of what the animal may have been eating by looking at trees it stops near and other debris along the way. Or did you know cat tracks have a little hump in the middle that dog tracks don’t?
Once you know what to look for, you can’t help but stop to see if it was a cat or a dog that passed by.