Winter Wildlife: Identifying Animal Tracks

By Guest blogger Peggy Doty, Energy and Environmental Stewardship Educator, Illinois Extension

Winter brings a unique opportunity to view wildlife in the Red Oak Rain Garden from a different perspective. Although animals move around the garden all the time, you might not notice them. In winter, from a human perspective, everything seems frozen and inactive, however, snow provides a great opportunity to look for the evidence of wildlife tracks. But what animal left those tracks? And how do we know?

WHO GOES THERE?: The size of the tracks provides the first clue to identification. From the photo above, we can tell that this is a small animal. I will even narrow it down to two possibilities: Squirrel or Rabbit.

Squirrel
Rabbit

READING THE TRACKS: Identifying tracks is not a perfect science, especially if you’re only working from a photo and not in person. Making it even more challenging is the fact that rabbit and squirrel tracks are painfully similar. However, their behaviors are different and if you know the behaviors, you have more clues for correct identification. So, let’s read the clues in the tracks.

Looking at the photo below, I labeled the print sets A, B, C in the direction of travel. For set C, I went further and put the order in which the animal landed each paw. Notice that C1 is melted deeper than C2 and the hind feet landed together as C3. Rabbits and squirrels are what we call gallopers. When running, their hind feet pass and land in front of their front feet.

THE CASE FOR SQUIRREL: At B, you see the standard set of four paws which are placed as squirrels do with the small front feet next to each other. In contrast, rabbits often place their front paws slightly on a diagonal. This suggests that the answer is squirrel.

THE CASE FOR RABBIT: However, the rules always get broken. Because the animal sat longer at B, the melt is deeper. I believe one front paw went forward as it considered hopping at C1 because it melted more than C2 and C3. Then, the animal took the hop placing the other front and the hind legs landing on either side of C2. It hopped immediately forward at that point because of the lack of melting in the prints. These clues strongly indicate that the answer is rabbit.

THE VERDICT: I am going with rabbit. Of course, the garden would have both!

The verdict is RABBIT!

MORE THINGS TO LOOK FOR: If these tracks had stopped at one of the garden’s trees and if there had been black flakes on the snow, it would have clearly been a squirrel. This is because when the squirrel climbs the tree, its little feet scrape off pieces of bark that land in the snow. I tell the youth I work with to look for “pepper on mashed potatoes.” Maybe you’ll see that some time. It is fun to see squirrel and rabbit tracks through the garden, even though they are both common on campus. Hopefully someday we’ll identify something more unique — perhaps TJ Tortoise, star of my nature center’s Instagram, will stop by to leave some prints. Not in this cold, though!

Photos and rendering by Layne Knoche except the squirrel, which is Adobe Commons.

Peggy Doty is an Extension Educator and director of the Natural Resource Education Center (NREC). Peggy received her Bachelor of Science in zoology with a specialization in wildlife management from Southern Illinois University and holds a Master of Education from Northern Illinois University. Her interests include the interface between people and wildlife. She helps native pollinators through programming and has a fascination with how humans treat their water supply. Peggy was awarded a 2020 Individual Extension Excellence Award in recognition of the research-based natural resource education she consistently delivers to youth of all ages throughout the state.

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