Tracking mysteries at Ontario Parks

On winter mornings especially after a light dusting of snow, animal tracks deposited under the cover of darkness provide clues about wildlife inhabiting Ontario Parks – tracks left in snow, chewed bark on or around a tree, snapped twigs, traces of urine, blood, or feathers or even evidence of a life and death struggle.

Tracking is an ancient art that is a fun way to discover the hidden side of Ontario Parks. Try the tracking tips listed below on your next winter park outing. Guided hikes during Family Day and Valentine’s Day events are also good opportunities to learn how to track. Event details are listed in this Park blog post.

Tracking tips:

– Start with the basics. The track’s foot size, shape and number of toes and track pattern can help to identify the animal and may give some clues about what it was doing.

– Animals inhabiting parks follow four basic patterns of movement – walking (trotting), galloping, bounding and waddling. Watch for different patterns of movement:

  • walking is a slow gait, common to many animals (especially in deep snow); it is the natural gait for members of the deer and cat families and wide-bodied mammals like bears and beavers
  • trotting is natural gait for canines, like foxes, coyotes and wolves;
  • hopping and bounding gaits are typical of rabbits, hares and many rodents
  • loping and galloping are generally fast gaits; lopes are characteristic of the weasel family; galloping suggests an animal that is running away from, or chasing something

-Carry a camera and ruler on park outings so you can record what you see.

-Tracks are often found where field and forests meet (edge habitats) or near open water.

– Squirrel track patterns have two parallel pairs of feet. The bigger hind feet are in front of the smaller front feet in a normal squirrel bounding gait. Eastern Grey Squirrels (which can be grey, brown or black in colour) have the same pattern but are a little bigger.

– The Cottontail Rabbit found in southern Ontario Parks has tracks similar to a squirrel. The main difference is that the tracks are staggered rather than parallel.

– Coyote and Red Fox tracks look like those of a dog but they walk in a straight line with each track landing (or registering) one in front of the other. Dog tracks have a more straddled pattern and often take an erratic route.

– Count the toes you see in a track to help you identify a park animal. Weasel family members show five toes whereas Red Foxes and Coyotes only imprint four.

– Snowshoe Hare and Lynx in northern Ontario Parks are well adapted to winter. Both have snowshoe-like paws with toes that actually spread further apart in softer snow.