Tuesday, January 23, 2001

What's making tracks in your yard?

How to tell critters' marks in the snow

By Mike Pulfer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Other wild animal tracks

        So there you are, out in the bitter winter wild, wondering what destiny fate has arranged for you. (Or maybe you're just looking out your window at the patio.)

        You know you're not alone because there are tracks in the snow. But what sort of animal could it be? Where is it? When might it attack?

        Well, now, if it's significantly annoyed by our whining about the weather.

        Or never. If the tracks are firm and long, leading directly to your front door and the mailbox, it's probably just your letter carrier.

        If the tracks are huge — as big as 3 or 4 feet long — and gracefully shaped like snow angels, they probably are snow angels, left by frolicking neighborhood children, maybe even your own. You should probably be able to identify them.

        Neighborhood cats and dogs are other likely sources of prints in your yard, but other species might be more difficult to detect. And, for many of them, you'll have to go beyond your front yard to detect them.

        Some tracks will offer surprises. Because of their hunting and sleeping habits, some animals are seldom seen in the daylight.

        Deer tracks, of course, will be bigger than squirrel tracks. And running animals will leave trails different from those that are walking.

        If you find tracks but have doubts about what might have made them (Bobcats, now endangered, really are native to this area and can be found on the fringes of our populated areas.), try making a plaster cast:

        Mix plaster with water to pancake-batter consistency. If the track is in snow, spray it lightly with water, which will freeze and harden the track. Make a frame around the track with a can or circle of cardboard. Pour the plaster into the frame until the surface is completely covered. When the plaster has hardened, remove the frame.

        Or call the Ohio Department of Natural Resources at (614) 265-6565 or the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources at (800) 858-1549.

        Meanwhile, paw your way through these:

        • Bobcat: Relative of the house cat, 9-68 pounds; 29-37-inch body, 5-6-inch tail; lives as long as 12 years; hunts mostly at night (nocturnal); eats insects, reptiles, fish, birds, small mammals. Rare in this area but they have been seen in rural settings.

        • Coyote: Slender, dog-like appearance; 20-50 pounds; 18 inches-2 feet tall; 41-53 inches long; lives 3-10 years; mostly nocturnal; eats rabbits, mice, squirrels, gophers, birds, frogs, toads, snakes, insects, fruits. Rare in this area but have been spotted as close to downtown as Norwood.

        • Eastern cottontail rabbit: Brownish-gray body, long ears, small white tuft of tail that resembles a cotton ball; 2-4 pounds, 14.5-16.4 inches long; usually lives less than a year; eats clover, dandelions, plantain, ragweed, corn, hay, tender tree bark, berries; one pair can produce as many as 70,000 offspring in a year.

        • Fox squirrel: Yellowish-gray with reddish-yellow cheeks, face and feet; pale yellow to orange belly; 19-48 ounces; 10-15 inch body, 9-14-inch tail; one-year life expectancy; eats nuts, fruits, corn, tree buds, insects.

        • Opossum: As big as a large house cat; coarse, grizzled grayish fur, long scaly tail, bald ears, long pointed snout, pink nose; 4-15 pounds, 15-20 inches; lives 1-2 years; predominantly nocturnal; eats carrion, insects, fish, reptiles, eggs, fruits, vegetables, nuts.

        • Raccoon: Gray-brown or orange-brown with black highlights; black face mask with white outline; bushy tail with 4-6 alternating black and brown or brownish-gray rings; 12-48 pounds; 24-37 inches long; predominantly nocturnal; eats grapes, nuts, berries, grubs, grasshoppers, crickets, mice, squirrels, eggs, crayfish, frogs, worms, clams, turtles.

        • Red fox: Rusty red or reddish yellow coat on back and sides, white throat, belly and cheeks; 8-15 pounds; 22-25 inches long; lives 6-8 years; eats mice, rats, rabbits, groundhogs, birds, fruits, some grasses.

        • Striped skunk: Relatively small, with long, low-slung body, short legs, short, rounded ears, thick silky coat, paired anal scent glands highly developed for defense, sprays as far as 15 feet; 1-3.5 pounds; 19-27 inches long; eats voles, rabbits, reptiles, birds, insects, earthworms, eggs, berries, seeds, honey.

        • White-tailed deer: Reddish tan in summer, grayish or bluish tan in winter with heavy, long guard hairs and thick insulating undercoat, white patches at eyes, throat, belly, tail, inside legs; bucks typically shed antlers in December and January, after breeding season; 90-300 pounds; 4.5-8 feet long; average 2-3 year life, but can live as long as 15 years; eats crab apples, corn, sumac, grasses, clover leaves, acorns, dogwood fruits, stems.

        • Woodchuck/groundhog: Grizzled brown, with variations from red to black, prominent bushy tail, small ears, short legs; 4.5-14 pounds; 16-32 inches long; good swimmer and climber; eats grasses, clover, alfalfa, corn,; helpful in fertilizing, loosening, aerating soil.

        Sources: Ohio Division of Wildlife; Department of Natural Resources; National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals, by John O. Whitaker Jr. ($19, Chanticleer Press)

Different kinds of tracks

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Different kinds of tracks
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