Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 16, 2007

Best Foot Forward

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:15 pm

  Despite what they say in Chicago, snow has many good merits.  Without going into an essay on snowphilia, allow me a moment to illustrate just one beneficial byproduct of the white stuff. A fresh coat of snow provides some good reading material, for instance.  The subject category is mostly non-fiction with a dash of semi-fictional CSI mixed in.  I am referring to the track record left by passing animals as they traverse over each newly laid page of winter.

  Winter animal tracks are ephemeral things that appear and disappear with the whims of wind and temperature. You need to look while the looking’s good. Earlier in the week, the look’n was good and I chanced upon the opportunity to be looking at a set of deer and squirrel tracks.  I was hoping to come upon some Yeti tracks, but you go with what you have (besides, Yetis are more common in the south part of the county). Even the lowly spoors laid down by these two numbingly-common critters are worth observation time. This is what I found (see the Fox Squirrel track here and the White-tailed Deer track here).

  Encountered only moments after they were laid down, these tracks were extremely crisp and detailed. Dusty snow makes for splendid impressions.  Deep snow puts everything out of focus and hard snow only gives in to heavy beasts, but a light covering over blacktop provides a perfect palette for foot art. The problem is that such a canvas melts quickly and the observer is standing in the middle of the road – need I say more. Let’s take the pictures and some measurements and then retreat to the computer screen for safe viewing.

  The Fox Squirrel set is especially nice.  Squirrel tracks are easily identified by the paired clustering of four individual feet created when they bound across the ground. Their front feet strike the ground first and the hind feet make second landing in the same manner as a running rabbit. In the squirrel snow-writing world then, the first set of footmarks are created by the hind feet and the second set are the front paws.  When the heel of the hind foot makes contact, the hind foot is always bigger than the forefeet – about 1.5 inches. Just for the sake of keeping the record straight, Red squirrels make the same exact pattern, but their prints are half the size.

  A toe counting exercise will reveal that the hind foot has the complete set of five and the front foot has only four. The toes on the back foot of a squirrel are arranged so that the central three are clustered together and the two outer ones angle outward. One peculiar feature you’ll notice on the front foot tracks are the marks left by two round wrist pads- just behind the palm (here, take another look). You probably wouldn’t think to look for these pads on the actual track maker. Pay close attention to this detail the next time an obese squirrel plants himself on your window bird feeder. These pads serve as rudimentary thumbs so that the animal can manipulate nuts and sunflower seeds with equal dexterity.

  The deer tracks also provide us with an insight into their footways. Unlike squirrels, who walk on their feet, deer walk on their toes.  They have four hooved toes, but only the large central hooves touch the ground when in walking mode (the so-called dew claws are higher up on the leg and only come in contact with the ground when the animal is running).  Since these main hooves come together to make an arrow-like impression, they leave little doubt as to what direction the maker was headed. The actual foot of a typical whitetail is some 20 inches long and the heel or wrist is at the first bending point of the leg. When we are talking about the track measurement of a deer, we are really talking about the length of the toe nails (which are 2-3 inches in length).

  This is a typical pair of walking tracks. The larger leading impression (2.5 inches long) is partially overlapped by the smaller print (1.75 inches long).  Contrary to what folks might like to think, the forefoot is always slightly larger than the hind feet on a deer and so the larger print is left by the front hooves. This seems to go against our impression of typical animal foot arrangement and many track books get this fact wrong. 

  Since deer are such a big part of our economy and hunting heritage, you’d be amazed at the amount of folklore that surrounds deer trackology. The main focus of this pseudo-lore revolves around discerning the difference between a buck or doe track. To put it simply – there is no difference. There are big does and little bucks. One internet guide maintains that the wider hipped does tend to lay their hind foot print to the outside edge of the front foot print.  Bucks, they continue, have wider shoulders to support their massive 24 point racks and therefore place their front foot tracks to the outside of the hind foot tracks. All of this is complicated by the fact that most folks don’t know the difference between the front and hind foot track to begin with. Allow me to repeat: there are big does and there are little bucks.

  Based on small size, I would guess that this delicate set of snow tracks was left by a fairly young animal of undetermined gender. I would never want to accuse any female of having big hips.


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