Tracks

Identifying Animal Tracks

Tracks are an excellent way to determine the presence of an animal. The problem is, however, that rarely does one find a “textbook” track.

Tracks are often smudged or only partial. Usually tracks only help narrow down the list of potential suspects and so they have not been included in the central key. However, we have compiled some information that may help you identify tracks.

Tracking Principles

  1. Perfect tracks are rarely found in the field.
  2. Look carefully at the track and the nature of the substrate holding the track impression.
    • What is its width? (with snow measure at the bottom not at the top of the snow)
    • What is its length?
    • What is its shape? Round?  Oval? Oblong?
    • Are claw marks showing? How many? Could the ground be too hard to show claws?
    • Are pads showing? How many?
    • Are toes showing? How many?
  3. Are other tracks present?
    • If so, what is the distance between this track and the other track? This is known as the animal’s gait. Knowing the gait can be very helpful in identifying the species.
  4. What is the habitat?
  5. Where is the animal going and what is it doing?
  6. What species exist in your area?
  7. What exotic (non-native) animals exist and could possibly have gotten loose in your area?
  8. These will provide helpful clues to narrowing down your list of suspects!!

Rodent Tracks

All rodents, from the smallest mouse to the largest beaver:

  • leave 5-toed tracks with their hind feet. Beavers have webbed hind feet.
  • show only 4-toed front tracks.
Norway Rat Muskrat
rat tracks Muskrat track and trail

Carnivore Tracks

Bears

Usually leave 5-toed tracks with a human-like or distant heel mark.

Raccoons

Front feet are “hand-like” and have a slight bulge before the toe.

Back feet are longer. Not all toes show.

Badgers

Note the gap between the pads and the toe nails. Also consider the angle of the toes.

Canines (Dog Family)

Tracks compared side by side:

Coyote

Dog (domestic)

Red Fox

Wolf

Cat/feline tracks lack claws. The shape of track will be rounder than the oblong canine track.

Dogs, bears, and members of the weasel family (badgers, skunks, weasels, otters) tracks usually show claw marks.

Members of the weasel family have 5 toes on front and hind feet and leave 5-toed tracks. Skunks and badgers also show a heel mark.

Bobcats, mountain lions, and feral cats are 4-toed and usually don’t show claw marks. Their front tracks are slightly larger than their hind tracks.

Wolves, coyotes, foxes, and feral dog tracks resemble cat tracks but usually leave claw marks.

Other Mammal Tracks

We’ve placed some common and unusual mammal tracks here!

Although shrews and moles look like rodents with pointed noses, they are really insect eaters. This makes them somewhat different from true carnivores, too.

Also, the common deer and rabbit species are shown here, along with their less common relatives, the elk and jackrabbits. The track of the deer-like pronghorn is here as well.

Opossum 
Deer
Rabbits 
Note the typical I-formation that helps distinguish it from squirrels, which move with a two-by-two pattern. Cottontail rabbits and jackrabbits show 5-toed front tracks. Their hind tracks are usually placed side-by-side.
Cottontail rabbit tracks in snow. Courtesy of Dallas Virchow of UNL

Reptile and Amphibian Tracks

Many venomous snakes have:

  • a triangular head
  • a blotched or banded body
  • cat-like eye pupils

Birds

Identify that bird! If bird roosts are a problem, look during late evening hours. If bird feeding damage is a problem, look during midmorning hours. You can usually distinguish birds from other animals by their three-toed tracks. Woodpeckers are the exception with two-toes pointing forward.

Dried bird (and reptile) droppings often have white coloration that is caused by concentrated uric acid.