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Winter wildlife tracks tell a story in the snow

by Brenda Palmer

Belly slides, deer feasts, the death of a songbird and turkeys galore: if it weren’t for the snow, no human would know. There is nothing like a blanket of snow to remind us how many other creatures inhabit our yards, parks and open spaces. As a tracking medium, snow rules.

Twenty-nine people of all ages decided to start the New Year with an hour-long New Year’s Day walk. 2013 is the first year the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) hosted New Year’s Day walks in state parks.

Environmental Education Specialist Heidi Mullendore led the walk at Canoe Creek State Park. Tracks for deer, turkey, squirrel and rabbit were abundant.

 

Several central Pa. mammals like to glide on their bellies when they can: mink, weasels and otters all make slides.

She also pointed out belly slides 6 to 12 inches across and 1 foot to 3 yards in length. The slides looked like small animals had been snow tubing when no one was watching—not far from the truth.

Mullendore speculated, “These were probably made by a Long-tailed Weasel because they are too far away from the stream for it to be a mink.”

Long-tailed Weasels do not hibernate and are predators of mice, small birds, frogs and reptiles. Mink, Long-tailed Weasels and Least Weasels can all be found at Canoe Creek.

Belly slides in the snow.

In several areas the snow was dug up by deer looking for acorns and other edibles. Looking at the numerous tracks, it seemed like deer were coming from everywhere to browse under a particular oak tree. A few deer can easily look like a hundred when examining prints in an area that deer frequent. If individuals can be identified, then an estimate of how many deer were at the “feast” can be made.

Deer have evolved into hoofed animals, but the remnants of toes are still there. On the back of the leg just above the two toes that are hooves are an additional two toes that have evolved into dew claws.

When a healthy, young deer walks in snow, usually only the two primary hoof toes leave a print. Occasionally the dew claws will leave a print as well. This might be an indicator of an older deer, as is a splayed foot or more distance between the primary toes.

You can also tell a deer’s sex by the placement of the back legs to the front. The skeletal structure is slightly different between the sexes of white-tailed deer.
Does place their hind legs slightly outward of the front legs, leaving a track with the hind hooves wider-set than the front hooves. Bucks are the opposite. They place their front legs wider apart which places the back prints inside the front.

Some deer also pick their feet up higher than others, leaving a drag mark across the snow surface between hoof prints that can help to identify some tracks as being left by an individual animal.

A subsequent walk on the same trail revealed a deer with a drag mark behind one foot, but not the others— likely a leg injury.

Looking at all the indicators, the party spot for deer had been visited by less than ten individuals, not a hundred like it seemed.
Blood on the snow along with a few feathers tells an obvious story: someone lost a life, but another has a full stomach. Sometimes the players are unclear, other times the snow can give us a play-by-play of exactly what happened.

On this day sparrows and snowbirds flitted from a bush as we passed. Underneath the bush, a few small feathers stuck to the blood spots, contrasted by the whiteness around it.

On a summer day we could only speculate who the predator might have been: fox, weasel, bobcat or many others; we would never know. In the snow, the absence of predator tracks tells us the aggressor was a winged-predator—likely a kestrel or small owl.
As spring nears, there will be the added element of sex appeal. Turkey, woodcock and Ruffed Grouse breed in spring when there is a good chance of still having fresh snow on the ground.

The males put on a display that often leaves evidence in the snow. The turkey extends his wings until the tips leave lines in the snow as he struts. The Ruffed Grouse males drum their wings in the air, making a distinctive sound and also feathered lines in the snow as if he were trying to make snow angels.

If a winter snow tells a PG-13 story (for implied violence), then an early spring snow gives us an R-rated drama or maybe even pay-per-view.