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Backyard Wildlife: Tracks

Tracking wildlife is a fun activity that everyone can enjoy. One of the most important items for tracking wildlife is a field journal. By keeping a field journal, you can record observations you have made and can preserve your finds. You also can write down crucial information that may be helpful for identifying animal tracks and signs when you return home. Animals leave many clues as to where they have been and what they have done.

Common Tracks
Bird tracks often are fork-shaped and have three long toes facing forward with a single toe facing backward. Mammal tracks vary, so it is often best to count the number of toes on each foot. On a single foot, mammals like white-tailed deer have two toes, while rabbits and foxes have four toes and skunks and raccoons have five toes. Mice and squirrels have four front toes and five hind toes per foot. Below are some examples of common tracks you may find.

Drawings of: animal tracks

Wild turkey (left); white-tailed deer (center); eastern gray squirrel (bottom right); gray fox (right)

Who Has Been Visiting My Yard?
Have you found an animal track? If so, then it is time to be a track detective. To identify the track, you will need a few essential items like a ruler, a notebook and something to write with. If you have a camera, then you can also take photos of tracks you find. You can also create plaster prints of tracks; the U.S. Geological Survey provides a handy how-to guide.

Note: The best tracks are found in mud, soft soil or sand. Snow, on the other hand, can melt and make the tracks appear larger than they are naturally. Most times, the tracks you find will be overlapping and incomplete, but don’t be discouraged!

When examining animal tracks, it is important to look for answers to the following questions:

  • How large was the track? Measure width and length.
  • How many toes does each animal have on each foot?
  • Which foot is larger? Front or rear?
  • How big are the tracks?
  • What are the general pad shapes?
  • Can you see claw marks in the print or not?

Take a picture of your track or draw it in your notebook. Write down answers to the questions above next to the track. Once you have written down some information, then it’s time to try to identify your animal. Check out the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Guide to Common Mammal Tracks for easy mammal track identification. Other online track resources include:

You can also take pictures of tracks and submit them to online sites like iNaturalist for identification. Happy trails!

Author’s Note

Welcome to the fall edition of the HabiChat, our quarterly backyard wildlife habitat newsletter from the Wild Acres program. Fall is my favorite time of year. This issue is dedicated to a native fruit tree known as the persimmon, explains why opossums are awesome and lists recommended plants for fall pollinators. In addition, there is a small piece on sowing fall seeds and two new citizen-science projects you may want to check out.
If there is a particular topic that you would like to see included in a future edition, please don’t hesitate to let us know. Happy Habitats!

Kerry Wixted

Also in This Issue:
Backyard Wildlife Fun: Tracks!
Citizen Science: Bats, Butterflies and Moths
Fall Seed Sowing
Fueling Fall Pollinators
Native Plant Profile: Persimmon
Native Wildlife: Virginia Opossum

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Photo of: Common Buckeye on Goldenrod; HabiChat Vol. 22, No. 1