Alphabet of Tracking: 4 Toes Front and Hind

by Carl Strang

 

To set the stage for future posts, I am beginning a series on basics of tracking, with an initial emphasis on mammal footprints. Tracking is a language. It has an alphabet, words, sentences, and these build to tell a story. The completeness of that story is limited mainly by the experience and skill of the tracker. Experience and skill are built only by what Tom Brown, Jr., calls “dirt time.” The more you study, the better you will be. Books and Internet postings like this one can provide hints to get you started, but you have to practice, and train your eye.

 

Reading any language begins with a mastery of its alphabet. The alphabet in tracking, as I learned it and teach it, is the identification of the species of animal which made the track. We’ll begin with animals whose feet typically register four toes on both the front and hind feet when leaving a footprint, and in our area of northeast Illinois this means members of the dog, cat and rabbit families.

 

Cat tracks are distinct in typically showing four toes per foot, with no toenail marks, and generally a circular shape to the track as a whole. The example usually encountered is the domestic cat.

 

Domestic cat

Domestic cat

 

 

I certainly keep my eyes out for bobcat tracks, but so far have found none in northeast Illinois. The photos are from other parts of the country. Note the lobed heel.

 

Bobcat track, Nevada

Bobcat track, Nevada

 

 

Bobcat track New Jersey

Bobcat track New Jersey

 

 

Mountain lion tracks have the same properties as other cat tracks, but are much larger and of course are not usually to be expected in our area.

 

Mountain lion track, Texas

Mountain lion track, Texas

 

 

Dog family members in our area include dogs, coyotes and foxes. In coyote and fox tracks the toes fit together so as to form an egg shape, with the middle two toes farther in front of the outer two toes. Coyotes have slightly larger footprints and a longer stride than foxes.

 

Coyote track

Coyote track

 

 

Coyote muddy foot on concrete

Coyote muddy foot on concrete

 

 

When the substrate is fine enough to register them, red fox tracks show ridges protruding through the fur in the heel and toe pads. In gray foxes, coyotes and dogs the pads are not so furry.

Red fox on the beach

Red fox on the beach

 

 

Red fox track, clay

Red fox track, clay

 

 

Red fox track, snow

Red fox track, snow

 

 

Dog tracks are relatively spread out, forming more a maple leaf shape, and the middle toes are not so far in front of the outer toes. This is a matter of degree which requires dirt (or snow!) time to learn.

 

Dog tracks

Dog tracks

 

 

Our local rabbit is the eastern cottontail. They are smaller animals, and their feet are furry, so unless they pass through soft mud or snow you will have to look for the 4 toenail marks of each foot.

 

Rabbit faced left, hind feet top and bottom, front feet center

Rabbit faced left, hind feet top and bottom, front feet center

 

Can you find the four toenails of this cottontail track?

Can you find the four toenails of this cottontail track?

 

 

 

I am providing just a starting sketch here. More will come later. If you want references, the best tracking books I have seen are by Tom Brown, Jr. (Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking; and, for more advanced study, The Science and Art of Tracking, both published by Berkley Books), and Mark Elbroch (Mammal Tracks & Sign, and Bird Tracks & Sign, both by Stackpole Books).

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