The Game of “Name Those Tracks”

animal tracks in the snowOnce we settled into our home the country, there has been no shortage of interesting discoveries when it came to the flora and fauna in the neighbourhood.

In winter, I find endless wonder and fascination in checking out the animal tracks in the snow in every corner of our property.

When I do, it turns into a bit of a CSI-style forensic game of “name those tracks”. While we have a number of regular visitors that make the short list of suspects, there are a few that stop by make one or two guest appearances, just to make the game more interesting.

Sometimes, the game is a bit of a throwback to primary school science classes when we learned about the wildlife that roams in this part of the country. I remember countless hours memorizing their unique characteristics, including the tracks that they leave behind.

The bird tracks are easy to pick out, as are those of our squirrels and chipmunks who must be suffering from insomnia this year as they aren’t really showing signs of hibernation. Their tracks are everywhere!

But there is evidence of other small animals that seem to visit us given the size of the tracks. I assume that they must be nocturnal critters, given how a morning stroll often yields new tracks to observe.

It is interesting to note the distinct patterns and gaits for different animals. Some animals leave a single line of tracks, as if the left and right paws are walking in the same positions. For one set in particular, we suspect that this might possibly be a coyote.

Other tracks seem to follow a pattern like my cat, with two distinct sets of tracks, one for the left paws, one for the right paws, in a seeming diagonal pattern. I believe these tracks belong to the fox that roams the neighbourhood.

And then we have the sets of left-right tracks that are perfectly parallel, as if there was hopping involved. Sometimes they are close together, while other times, they are several feet apart, which makes me wonder if speed was involved. While my initial guess would be a rabbit or a hare, the Internet seems to suggest otherwise, as the patterns don’t really match up.

But it is the larger paw prints that are a mystery. We assume that they are visits from a deer. We have been told by neighbours that they have been seen around our property, and these tracks seem to validate the sightings. But to this point, I have only witnessed with my own eyes one such visit on the next property over.

Once the identification game is over, I love following their trajectory through the property, checking out where they are coming from and where they are going.

When it has been a few days since the last snowfall and the tracks are accumulating, our yard looks like a busy highway of animal tracks. What is fascinating to me is that some areas are definitely more high-traffic while others are completely clear and undisturbed. How do animals decide? Do they have a town hall meeting to establish the best routes? How to they achieve consensus? How do they vote?

But I believe that animals must choose their trajectory in the spirit of self-preservation, trying to follow a path close to trees or shrubs, as opposed to a wide open space, to give them a good hiding place should a predator suddenly make an appearance nearby.

And when following the tracks, I think it is natural to wonder what happened, when the same set of tracks goes in a most illogical pattern. Did they spot a predator? Did they spot a food source? Who knows?

A stranger observation is when tracks just suddenly stop or start in some random location, with no obvious signs of turning around. How does that even happen?

To me, the “name those tracks” game serves as a reminder of how busy my life in the city was. Despite having a front and back yard that were about the size of area rugs, there was a wooded area nearby that was home to many little critters. I rarely had time to stop and take notice of tracks in my little patches of snow.

The tracks also serve as a reminder about the fragility and temporary nature of things in life. It only takes one snowfall to erase the tracks and to give us a clean slate for the next round of “name those tracks.”

Either way, in the winter, whether I am taking out the garbage or going to get the mail, there is no shortage of new tracks to catch my attention. When I see them, I can’t help but stop and feel the joy and gratitude of the simple pleasures of rural life.


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