My parents taught me a lot about being in the woods. There were no specific lessons. My mother was the reason my love of birds and bird identification was in full swing by middle school mostly just by her bird feeders hanging in the backyard. My dad might have taught me a few things about the habits of white-tailed deer. Much to his chagrin when I would ask to accompany Dad to the marsh across the street to go hunting, I never quite grasped the concept that you had to be quiet; I was one of those kids with way too many questions. The key thing my Dad taught me was the general love of being outdoors (and that perhaps some of those questions could be answered for myself if I was quiet, waited, and thought it through).

Every winter I get determined to finally learn to identify tracks. After a fresh snow I look forward to my daily walk with the dogs to see what has been out there moving around. But I am very far from mastering track identification.

I have a two down solid. The porcupines who have lived under our barn have taught me their sashaying, tail-dragging trail. Once snow has fallen I can tell which route the latest porcupine resident has taken on his nightly foray. The current one has a little too much of a penchant for waddling down the driveway and across the road. We live on a blind hill so his life will likely be cut short by bad timing. I rarely see him so I can’t give him a lecture about this. The one time recently I did see him, we were both too startled to stop and chat—I opened the back door of the barn and almost stepped on top of him as he was coming home from an overnight venture. I stepped back and he scurried to his daytime napping spot under the barn.

Turkey tracks are perhaps the easiest to ID. They love scrounging under bird feeders so once you see them there you can go look at their tracks. Their long tubular prints make it pretty clear they are bird tracks. And, of course, their tracks are huge. Running across turkey prints in the woods always makes me laugh—it looks like a small herd of pterodactyls have wandered through.

Deer tracks are relatively easy. Their cloven hooves puncture the snow in a distinct way. Although most identification guides show both the split hoof and a dot from the dew claws, I rarely see the dew claws in the tracks. Deer tracks I saw recently made me certain they were instead from a young moose. Ultimately, I think they were a large deer that was walking in snow with slush underneath, making the tracks larger and the dew claw print more prominent. But I moved my game camera to the area just to see if I can confirm.

While I often focus on the actual track, identification from footprints begins with more than looking the track itself. Some things to consider are:

Where are you? Is this an area where the animal you think it might be actually would be? Has the animal been spotted there before, not by tracks but an actual sighting? For instance, in our woods we have seen bobcat, fisher, coyote, deer, but the only raccoons I have ever seen have been at the pond or in the barn. It is unlikely (although not impossible) that tracks on the woods trail would be raccoon.

What else travels the area? Neighbors use our woods trail to walk their dogs. Are the tracks that might be coyote actually domestic dog? While there are distinct differences between the two, an amateur like me might need both side-by-side to tell one from the other. Dog tracks are wider and their claws tend to show in the tracks where coyote (who are likely not only lighter in weight but walk lighter on the ground than a dog) tracks tend not to show claw prints.

Animals travel differently as well. According to naturetracking.com, “Gait patterns are the best tools to ID tracks in the snow…” Domestic cats typically “direct register”—or, their hind feet step forward and land in the track of the front foot. And they zig zag as they walk, with their left and right sides distinctly apart from each other. Coyotes tend to walk in a very straight pattern, which is more efficient and saves energy compared to the typically meandering pattern of the domestic dog (who, if they are like my dogs, are just going from sniff spot to sniff spot).

Thinking of all these things, bringing a cellphone to snap pictures, carrying a coin in your pocket to put down for size comparison in a picture, and using a good tracks book (I used The Encyclopedia of Tracks & Scat by Len McDougall, published in 2004 by The Lyons Press) and/or reliable websites will help us all become better able to identify wildlife based on tracks.