Every game animal leaves its mark; imprints in soft soil, sand or snow. These calling cards reveal a historical presence. New or old, they can be read like a book. Learn to recognize them and you can glean a great deal about the game you're hunting. With practice we cannot only learn to identify the type, size, and sometimes sex of the animal, but also their direction of travel and how old the track is.
Whether you hunt ungulates, predators, or fowl, chances are you notice tracks. Sometimes they are clearly defined imprints; other times they can be difficult to interpret - much depends on the type of ground you're hunting. We take note because tracks confirm that game was on that very ground some time before us. If you're a proactive hunter, possessing the ability to identify and decipher tracks carries you that much nearer to closing a tag.
To simplify, let's consider five categories including hoofed mammals, bears, canines, felines, and wildfowl.
Unless you're fortunate enough to find the perfect imprint in mud, wet sand or snow, tracks are rarely well defined. In turn consider the following as you decide, for instance, whether the track was made by a deer, elk, moose, caribou, pronghorn, sheep or goat. By description, ungulate tracks can be divided into two general groups, i.e., those with a distinct heart-shape and those that are more rounded.
Notice the size and more rounded shape of the cow elk hoof
For sake of argument, deer, moose, elk, pronghorn, and to some extent wild sheep have a more defined heart shape. Caribou and bison are more ovular in dimension. With heart-shaped tracks, direction of travel is straightforward with the narrow end of the heart pointing like an arrow in the direction the animal was moving. For rounded tracks, it can be a bit trickier, but with some evaluation, this can easily be determined. For instance, in many situations, particularly if the animal was trotting or running; dirt, sand, snow, or even grass may be kicked up and back opposite to the direction of travel.
Notice the distinct heart-shape to the pronghorn antelope hoof
The one constant with all hoofed game animals is that mature males, be they bucks, bulls, rams, billies have a distinctly larger (i.e. wider and longer) track than their female counterparts. Likewise fawns, calves, lambs, and kids have smaller hooves, often half the size or less, of adults. Savvy hunters learn to recognize tracks left by males, females, and young animals.
This whitetail doe track is easily identified in mud
If your quest is for a trophy-class male of a target species, knowing what you're looking at can help narrow your search. Take, for instance, the most commonly hunted big game animal in North America - the whitetailed deer. While an average track of a northern whitetail may measure just over three inches, discover a track measuring between four and five inches in length (front to back) with sizeable dewclaw marks, and you'll want to take note and look for further tell-tale evidence like droppings, rubs and scrapes that might be in the vicinity. Dewclaws are closer to the hoofs on the front track and further away from the hoof on the back track. As a rule, tracks made by females seldom show the dewclaw imprints.
Other characteristics can be noteworthy as well. Mature bucks and bulls for instance will have a longer stride and frequently drag their hoofs in the sand or snow. Stride length can be a subjective measurement largely based on whether the animal is walking slowly, trotting, or on a full-out run. Unless snow is deep, rarely will a doe drag her hoofs, at least not to the same extent. Locate a large track with clearly imprinted dewclaw marks, especially one that is dragging hoofs and you may be on to a trophy-class buck.
While there are subtle differences between a whitetail track and a mule deer track, in most instances it can be challenging to differentiate. In those situations, consider the type of terrain and other indicators. For instance, is it predominantly a whitetail habitat area or a mule deer area? When it comes to larger members of the deer family like elk, moose and caribou, cow tracks are different in that dewclaw marks may be evident although at times less pronounced than in a track made by a bull.
Mule Deer doe hoof - dewclaws are smaller on a doe
Similar evidence can be sought for other members of the deer family. When it comes to pronghorn, sheep and goat tracks, discerning size and gender of the animal that made the tracks can be tricky. On the whole, they are less easily interpreted largely because of where they live. Amid grassland habitats, pronghorn tracks can be found but all-to-often they are seen in dry sand and therefore less defined. Likewise, while sheep and goat trails are easily observed on mountainsides, they are commonly found on talus slopes making it next to impossible to find individual imprints in the absence of wet or soft soil. As a result, tracks may be most easily seen in sparse soils on benches and sand in the timber or along waterways.
Bear tracks - be they black bear, grizzly bear, brown bear, or polar bear are similar in general shape but immensely different in size and claw feature depending on the sub-species. To simplify, black bear and inland grizzly tracks are the smallest with brown bear and polar bear tracks being the largest.
Bear tracks - well defined tracks like this are made when soil is wet
Front pads on all bears are more rounded in shape with a small heel pad. Rear footprints are elongated and narrower at the heel than at the toes. Both front and rear tracks may show five toes and five claw marks. While claw marks can be seen with all bear sub-species, black bears, in part due to their smaller size can leave a less visible claw mark. Grizzly and brown bears have distinctly longer claws that in turn, leave a more visible and deeper indentation in the ground. Polar bears have a lot of hair between the toes and so rarely are claw marks seen in the snow. Likewise, Grizzly, brown bear and polar bear tracks will be many times larger than black bear tracks. For instance, an average 200 pound black bear boar may have a front pad measuring 3 ? inches in width. Find one measuring up to five inches and you're on to a trophy-class bruin. By comparison, a sizeable grizzly track will measure between 5 and 6 inches across the front pad. Likewise, a decent brown bear track will be at least 9 inches across the front pad.
Tracks will commonly be found along well-used bear trails; traditional movement corridors frequented by bears i.e., along beaver dams, creeks, rivers, ridges and other drainages. Complementary signs to look for in proximity to tracks include piles of scat and bear trees - trees torn up by bears ripping the bark away. Likewise, particularly with black bears, claw marks made mostly by young bears as they climb trees, are obvious clues that again show historical presence.
Wolves, coyotes, and foxes leave unique tracks but in some instances, to an untrained eye, they can appear similar to those made by wild cats. Wild dogs generally have a slightly more slender and longer foot, making a moderately narrower track. Each has a single pad rounded by four toe pads, however most often wolf, coyote, and fox tracks will have a more pronounced imprint of the claws pointing in the direction of travel.
Good snow conditions make identifying these fresh coyote tracks straightforward
Wolves can weigh up to three or four times that of a coyote, so their track may be more clearly defined in the mud, sand, or snow. With dogs, the front foot is slightly bigger than their hind foot. In turn, tracks will reflect this. Wild dog tracks range from the smaller fox track measuring approximately 2 ? inches in length to coyotes which typically measure slightly longer at around 2 ? inches in length, on up to the largest wild canine, the wolf, whose front pad typically measures around 4 1/8 inches in length. Wild dogs vary greatly in size and stature. In turn, it would be inaccurate to characterize them universally with specific dimensions related to their stride and straddle. Suffice it to say that foxes will have the smallest stride of the dog tracks, followed by coyotes, then wolves with the largest.
With wild canine populations flourishing across much of the mid-west, fox and coyote tracks can be seen almost everywhere. Thriving in most agricultural and wilderness habitats, find their prey species and chances are you'll locate tracks in short order. Wolves are more reclusive, commonly found in heavily forested areas throughout much of western Canada and only limited locations in the northwestern United States. With no real rhyme or reason, wolf tracks are where you find them.
Most relevant to hunters are the mountain lion and bobcat. Largely nocturnal, wild cats are rarely seen so having the ability to identify and interpret their tracks can be an asset. The biggest challenge a cat hunter faces is discerning the difference between a cougar track and that of a wolf. While experienced houndsmen can easily differentiate between the two, for the neophyte cat hunter, this can sometimes prove challenging.
Physically larger, cougars have a front and rear pad that is more rounded than that of a wolf. All things being equal, despite similarities between dog and cat tracks, cats typically keep their claws retracted while walking so in most instances you won't see claw marks in cat tracks. By comparison, the heel pad in a cat track will appear slightly larger and the toe pads will appear more rounded than in a dog track.
Measuring a mountain lion track in snow
An average front pad on an adult cougar will be around 3 ? inches in width and 3 inches in length. The rear pad will be roughly a ? inch narrower. Much smaller by comparison, a bobcat's front and rear pads will be only 1 7/8 inches in length and 1 ? inches in width. A lynx track can sometimes be confused with one made by a cougar. Interestingly, the front foot on a lynx is actually much larger, measuring up to 4 ? inches in length and 3 ? inches in width.
As predators, cats follow similar movement patterns to dogs and bears. Natural funnels, ridges, and waterways are likely places to look for cat tracks. Locate moist soil, sand, or snow on stream banks or roadways and cutlines and chances are you'll eventually find a cat track in areas where prey like rabbits, squirrels, and deer are abundant.
Yes, wildfowl leave tracks as well. Ducks and geese of course have webbed feet and the track they leave is commensurate with their relative size. If you're looking for evidence of migratory birds using a nighttime or daytime roost, be it large or small take a look around the shoreline. Chances are you'll see webbed tracks in the sand or mud all around the edges of the water. Look for other tell-tale signs like feathers and droppings and the evidence will tell you what you're looking at.
Then there are upland birds. From grouse to partridge, pheasant, and even wild turkey, discovering tracks can be a great confidence builder on days when they seem elusive. Wild turkeys leave the largest track in part due to their greater body weight and larger feet. At the opposite end of the spectrum are smaller upland game birds like quail and Hungarian partridge.
Turkey tracks - upland bird tracks are easily identified by their characteristic "three toes"
Upland birds have three toes; one pointing straight up and two angling slightly up and out to the left and right with a nail mark often shown in the track. By description, Hungarian partridge and ptarmigan for instance have a foot measuring between 1 ? and 1 5/8 inches in length. Ruffed grouse will leave an imprint in moist soil or snow measuring approximately 2 inches in length. A pheasant will have a track measuring slightly larger at around 2 3/8 inches in length. Wild turkeys are somewhat larger leaving a track that measures around 4 inches in length. By nature, upland birds forage for berries and other food. Most have a territory and much like other game, if you find droppings you are likely to find tracks somewhere nearby.
For More Information
A variety of resources dealing with animal tracks can be found online and in print. One of the best books I've found is an older one sponsored by the national Audubon Society as part of the Peterson Field Guide Series titled, A Field Guide to Animal Tracks by Olaus J. Murie. First published in 1954, this book covers everything from weasels to bison. Highly informative it provides approximate measurements, explanations and excellent illustrations. If you're interested in learning more about tracks, take some time to research online or at the library. A simple website that shows representative track drawings for many North American game species can be seen at www.bear-tracker.com .
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.