Animal Tracks and Other Wildlife Signs
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These scents are a complex language that humans will never fully understand, but it’s believed they identify the individual within a species and give clues like what food is in the area or when an animal is ready to procreate.
All of these signs require a little more keen observation than, and are often overshadowed by, the most obvious animal sign of all, the footprint. Animal tracks blanket the landscape, but they are most commonly and easily identifiable in softer ground – near ponds and streams. The water source on your property, if you have one, is a great place to start looking for tracks, since all animals are likely to visit that source at some point.
Identification of tracks takes time, and it’s admittedly tough to tell the difference between a coyote and a domestic dog, a bobcat and domestic cat, and so on, but there are a few tricks that help.
The most basic distinction to be made is between canines and felines. Cats have retractable claws, so if claws are present you’re likely dealing with a member of the canine family. The exception would be if the cat is running and hunting, but that’s unlikely if you’re looking around a water source.
For a lot of other species, some time spent studying a field guide – the Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks is one that is widely used – will have you recognizing the heel pad fatness in a porcupine that
indicates it’s not a raccoon, and so forth.
Within the feline and canine families, though, the toughest distinctions occur among members. Size definitely matters.
Marion Larson, information and education biologist in the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, says getting a good measurement is important to determining species, and it turns out that people aren’t that good at measuring.
In her department, Larson receives num-erous e-mails and phone calls from people trying to determine a species based on tracks. The digital age has ushered in a convenient, instant way for people to check with a biologist using digital cameras and e-mail. But an accurate measurement is still needed.
“Put something next to the print that is familiar in size, whether it’s a dollar bill or a quarter or something like that,” Larson says. “A bobcat print and a cat print, except for size, are going to look fairly similar.”