Log Cabin Chronicles
Beth Girdler: Doing It Naturally
Beth Girdler
Beth Girdler
is a naturalist based in Ayer's Cliff, Quebec.

Her previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 12.11.00
Ayer's Cliff, Quebec


Stalking the wild things

One of my favorite pastimes is identifying animals by their tracks and trying to "read" the events that occurred at the time the tracks were made. Doing so is like attempting to solve a murder mystery, especially when there is blood involved.

Freshly fallen snow can provide a medium in which many a gory tale may be told. Picture rabbit tracks that end in snow speckled red with blood and strewn with bits of fur. This usually indicates a successful attack.

Further examination of the site may reveal the sweep marks made by feathers of an owl as its wings brushed the snow on landing or take off. Dainty dog-like tracks approaching the scene single file may mean the perpetrator was a fox. Both wing and canine tracks may mean that a fox tried to steal prey from an owl.

Three-inch bird tracks with three long toes forward and one long toe back - walking, not hopping - toward the site, usually belong to crows or ravens looking for scraps after the fact. Long tracks with a heel mark and single large rounded toe print mean that you were not the first human on the scene.

The setting described above is just one of an endless combination of events that can take place on any given winter day or night.

Once, when out cross-country skiing on the top of Bunker Hill, I came across a dead deer. Its neck was torn open and its back lacerated. Other than a few tracks made by curious crows, I could find no clues in the snow.

A real life woodland mystery at my feet! A little further along I came across a neighbour on his skidoo. I asked if he had seen the deer. He had and said he thought the wounds looked like the work of a bobcat.

I wasn't sure about his analysis until I came across the telltale two inch-wide cat-like tracks of a bobcat about fifteen minutes later, cutting across the trail and heading into a stand of spruce. The cat had probably leapt onto the deer's back from an overhanging tree limb. After making the kill, it must have jumped back up into the trees, planning to return later for a leisurely feed.

When out looking for tracks, don't limit yourself to the most obvious prints.

Deer and fox tracks are common in our area and easy to spot. Look again. What initially looks like a line drawn across the snow may actually be the tiny footprints of a mouse that made a marathon dash across open ground some time during the night.

Bend down. You may be able to count the impressions of four feet as the mouse bounded over the snow. If conditions are just right, you may even be able to distinguish individual toe marks as well as an interrupted line running the length of the Lilliputian trail made whenever the mouse's tail touched the snow.

If that is all you see, or more of the same (indicating a well-used mouse highway) the trail is still a secret. A look nearby may disclose pairs of ¾ inch wide round tracks. These tracks belong to a member of the weasel family. When moving through snow the back feet of a weasel will land in the prints made by its front feet. The tracks then appear in pairs instead of four at a time like those made by mice.

If the weasel tracks suddenly disappear down the same hole that the mice tracks emerge from, well… we can imagine the outcome.

This week, why not dress warmly, go for a walk and try your hand at being a super-nature sleuth.

I will describe the tracks and habits of individual animals later this winter. If you are interested in learning more about animal tracks pick up a copy of the Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks or the Stokes Guide to Animal Tracking and Behaviour.