5 Animal Tracks to Look for in Your Backyard

by Feb 13, 2017News0 comments

Five Animal Tracks to Look for in Your Backyard

By Katherine Dunn, Bedford Audubon Correspondent

To my fellow New Yorkers: there are cool critters shuffling through your yard this winter—and I’m not talking about your dog or the neighbor’s cat that’s always getting out (you know, the one who conveniently finds its way to your bird feeder).

These visitors fly and flutter, they’re the raptors and songbirds you hear from the window; and now that winter’s in full swing, they’re writing their visits in snow. From Snowy Owls to fiery red Northern Cardinals, here are 5 tracks you didn’t know were in your backyard—and the tricks you need to spot them.


Snowy Owls appeared like magic—first in Canada, then New York City during the winter of 2013. Snowy Owls were spotted across the eastern seaboard in the greatest numbers in half a century. Drawn to seashores, meadows, and open landscapes resembling the tree-less tundra, you can find them from November through March. But you can also get Great Horned Owls, Barred Owls, and Barn Owls in winter. Owls, woodpeckers, and cuckoos leave zygodactyl tracks, which is defined by two toes pointing forward and two backwards. Other signs include a raptor “snow angel” created by the bird of prey swooping down, and brushing the snowy surface with their wings.

Ruffed Grouse

Imagine creating your own underground igloo to escape the cold. Well, that’s exactly what the Ruffed Grouse does every winter by plunging itself into fluffy powder. Diving down several feet, the Grouse’s body heat melts the snow to create a cave-like enclosure where it snoozes at a comfy 40 degrees. When startled, the Grouse will suddenly burst from the ground, leaving a “snow angel” mark behind. Look for these prints when there’s high snowfall in deciduous and coniferous forest interiors. Count yourself lucky if you find a Ruffed Grouse these days!

American Robin

Poets and naturalists have sung their praises. Hear their musical whistle, see their amber bellies in the pine forest, and you’ll understand why. Known as the early bird, a Robin chirp sounds like a whimsical “cheer up” which can be heard year round across North America. Feasting on berries in winter, you can find them anywhere from farms to urban gardens where they hop across the ground which creates asymmetrical, anisodactyl tracks which is defined by three toes pointed forward and one pointed back. Robins are the rare bird that can both hop and run.

Mourning Dove

The most widespread and abundant game bird in North America, the Mourning Dove roosts in evergreens and orchard trees throughout open woodlands in winter. If you think their tracks looks like a pigeon’s, you’re right. With alternating tracks that are about 2 inches long, you can find their footprints in fields and open landscapes near the forest edge where they feed on seeds, peanuts, and the occasional berry. Due to their short legs, their tracks will be very close together. Like other songbirds, doves have anisodactyl tracks with three toes in front and one in back.

Wild Turkey

If you have a large backyard near woodland, you’ve probably seen these birds a few times, and not just on Thanksgiving. Traveling in flocks, you can spy these birds in the early morning hours near open yards and fields where they scavenge for nuts, berries and the occasional snail. One of the greatest population revival stories, wild turkeys live in mature forests among nut trees such as oak and hickory throughout the Northeast and New York State. Leaving what is commonly called a “game track” pattern, the back toe is faded or absent from the footprint, leaving a large, front three-toe print in the ground.

Tips & Tricks and What They Tell Us

Now you know what bird tracks to look for this winter, but how do you find them? Here are some things to remember.

Fresh snow. Perfect tracks are rare, but tracks are easier to identify in fresh powder.

The early bird catches the worm. Many animals are most active at dusk and dawn, so search for tracks in the early morning hours before dogs and hikers take to the woods and fields.

Follow the water. Search for tracks along trails near open streams, but at a safe distance in case of thin ice.

Long trail, long tail. Animals that drag their tails such as squirrels leave a lined track between their footprints.

Follow the tracks. The direction of tracks can tell you what the animal was doing. For example, squirrel tracks often go from one tree to another so they could be searching for food, chasing a friend, or pursuing a mate.

The disappearing act. If the tracks suddenly vanish without a trace, the animal may have taken flight or retreated up a tree. This is especially true for Wild Turkeys, who spend the night roosting in trees.

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