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Tracking a Winter Crime Scene

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

I strap on my boots and walk outside into the snowy woods that have come alive. Large walnut trees and cottonwoods are cloaked with snow and the newly fallen snowflakes sparkle like diamonds on the ground. There is not a sound in the woods except for the soft, calm breeze through the trees. Animal tracks are everywhere!

I notice several pairs of tiny, clawed tracks hopping between walnut trees, then find a cracked walnut under the tree. The two-toed, heart-shaped tracks of deer meander through the woods. Looking next to cedar trees, I can spot the places where the deer bedded down in the storm and were eating the twigs The coolest discovery, however; is a pair of rabbit tracks in the snow.

I follow the rabbit tracks intently as they hop through the forest floor, until out of blue, the tracks disappear! I look back to see if the rabbit had turned around but there was only one set of tracks. I take a few steps forward and observe two large feathery wing prints branded in the snow, then two more sets ahead of the original one. A large bird had scooped up the rabbit! More than likely it was a great horned owl or barred owl that took the rabbit away.

I've been hooked on looking for animal prints in the snow ever since that day I witnessed a winter crime scene in the woods. Here are a few tips to get you started on looking for animal tracks in the snow. When identifying animal tracks, a few things to ask yourself; is this the right size and shape for this animal? What other animals may have left this footprint? Is this the right habitat for this animal?

The pattern of animal tracks fits mostly into four categories: bounders, hoppers, walkers, and waddlers. Bounders front fed land first, then hind feet land behind or in front of the front tracks! River otters are bounders. Hoppers are the most common tracks to find in the winter. Hoppers front feed land together, then the larger hind feet land in front of the front tracks! Land animals like rabbits front feet land askew, while tree dwellers like squirrels front feet land parallel. Walkers have a left-right-left-right pattern, landing with opposite front and hind feet. Sometimes the tracks will overlap, helping the animal conserve energy while walking in the snow. White-tailed deer and humans have a walking pattern. Waddlers move both feet on one side of their body, then move both feet on the other side. Raccoons, beavers, and bears are examples of waddlers.

No matter if it’s in your yard or the woods, discovering animal tracks in the snow is a great way to get some exercise and beat cabin fever. There is a whole world waiting to be discovered just outside your front door!

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