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Follow animal footprints to track down winter fun

LANSING — Everything looks a little different with a blanket of freshly fallen snow, and some things – like animal tracks – become even easier to see. It might be challenging to spot Michigan’s more elusive critters, but many do leave clues behind. That’s one reason winter is a fun time to get out and explore different habitats.

Tracking wildlife can be done at any time of the year, but snow makes a great backdrop for animal tracks. If there’s no snow, wet sand, soil or mud works well, too.

“Figuring out which species produced the tracks you find is like solving a puzzle and can be done readily with the right book or tracks chart,” said Hannah Schauer, a wildlife communications and education coordinator with the DNR Wildlife Division. She pointed to some sketches of animal tracks available online to get started.

“Key in on the overall shape and size of the track, if you can, and try to distinguish the number of toes the animal has,” Schauer said. “Raccoons show ‘fingers’ not unlike our own. Beavers have webbed feet. Deer have a familiar two-hooved print, while most birds have three toes pointing forward and one facing backward.”

Hopping and walking patterns can help, too. Looking for claw marks also can help you determine whether you’re looking at cat tracks (such as bobcat), which lack the claw marks shown by dogs (like fox and coyote).

Other tips:

– Take a journal and camera to document tracks and other observations, like where tracks start or stop.

– A ruler can help track measurements, which can point to species.

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