Who goes there?

How to identify animal tracks in your yard and beyond

|  STORY BY MEGHAN MCMAHON  |

Have you ever stumbled upon a line of animal tracks left behind in freshly fallen snow or a muddy patch of Earth and wondered who left them behind?

This kind of discovery can create a lot more questions than answers: What animal left the tracks? Where was it going? Does it live nearby?

With a little know-how about the animals that live in your neck of the woods — or prairie or savanna, for that matter — you might learn the answer to some of these questions. Or maybe uncover new mysteries to solve.
When you find animal tracks outdoors, don’t be afraid to get down at ground level to get a good look. You might see claw marks or paw pads or other telltale signs that provide useful clues in solving the mystery.

What critters have been through your area?

The National Wildlife Federation offers some useful tips for anyone trying to identify animal tracks found in the wild.

  1. Measure multiple prints: Check the length and width or more than one print. Some mammals have bigger front feet than back feet because the front feet support more of their body weight.
  2. Measure the distance between prints: The distance between them, called the stride, and the width the between print, called the straddle, can be clues to the size of the animal and how fast it was moving.
  3. Count the toes: How many toes does the print have? Can you see claw marks or a heel? All of these could be clues to who left the track.
  4. Follow the tracks: Where do the tracks lead? Do they offer any clues about the animal’s habitat or where it spends time?
  5. Keep your distance: If you follow tracks right to an animal’s nest, den or resting place, give the animal plenty of space. Do not approach it or disturb it.

Keep in mind too, that animals from the same family often leave similar-looking tracks. For example, deer, elk, moose and others from the Cervidae family all have cloven hooves, which are split into two toes that are usually easy to identify in tracks left on the ground. The only member of the Cervidae family that lives in Will County is the white-tailed deer, which makes it easy to identify. This isn’t the case in parts of the western United States where deer, elk, antelope, moose and even more roam the land. In these places, size, shape and location and more clues can be needed to properly identify an animal track.

Here’s a look at some of the wildlife commonly seen in Will County and some of the identifying features of the tracks they leave behind.

Coyote

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Coyotes are members of the canine family, so it’s no surprise that coyote tracks look similar to those left behind by medium-sized dogs. Coyote prints will have a large paw pad at the back surrounded by four clawed toes at the front.  

Prints from coyotes are usually 2 inches to 3 inches long, and the front prints will be larger than those from the back feet, according to Outdoor Life. Coyotes typically travel with purpose rather than meandering or roaming, so their tracks often move in straight lines.

Deer

(Photo courtesy of Barb Ferry)

White-tailed deer leave behind tracks that are rather easy to identify because they are hooved, and they are the only hooved wild animal found in northern Illinois. Their tracks are usually about 2 inches to 3 inches tall, Outdoor Life reports. A deer’s tracks have two oblong toes that are side by side, giving them a heart shape.
Deer walk diagonally, and their tracks typically appear staggered, because deer lift the front and hind legs on opposite sides at the same time, according to Backpacker.

Raccoon

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Raccoon tracks can be easy to distinguish from other animals’ because they look like tiny handprints. These nocturnal critters have five fingers of each paw, and all five fingers will face forward, unlike prints from opossums or muskrats, Outdoor Life reports.

A raccoon’s front prints are about 2 inches to 3 inches long, while their back prints are bigger, 3 inches to 4 inches long. Tracks from their back paws will also have a longer heel print than their front paws.  

Opossum

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Opossum prints look similar to those from raccoons, but the toes are more splayed and widespread. They have opposable thumbs only on their back feet, so their back prints are wider, with the thumb more separated from the other fingers than on their front prints, according to My Wisconsin Woods.

Opossums leave behind smaller front tracks than back. Their front paw prints are about 2 inches long, while the back prints are about 3 inches long, according to Outdoor Life.

Rabbit

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Eastern cottontail rabbits hop or gallop rather than walk, and their gait shapes the tracks they leave behind. Their front feet hit the ground first, then their back feet swing forward, meaning their back prints appear in front of their front prints, Outdoor Life reports.

Their back prints are much larger than their front prints, with backs prints typically about 3 inches long and front prints usually about 1 inch long. Both the front and back tracks will have four toe prints.

Squirrel

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Just like rabbits, squirrels tend to gallop more than run or walk. This means their prints will show their back prints in front of their front prints, according to Outdoor Life. One way to tell the difference between squirrel and rabbit tracks is the toe prints. Prints from squirrels and other rodents will show four toe prints on the front paws and five on the back. But remember: The back paw prints will be in front of the front prints in tracks left in the snow or mud.

Squirrel prints are also generally smaller than a rabbit’s overall.

Squirrel prints are about 1 inch long, although the back prints can be a bit bigger if the rear heel pad also leaves a track.

Beaver

(Photo by Cindy Cain)

Beavers spend a lot of time in the water, so we don’t see their tracks in the mud or snow as often as we do with some of the other wildlife that populates Will County. They also tend to leave other clues to their presence, such as gnawed tree stumps or branches or piles of fresh wood shavings.

Tracks from the front paw of a beaver look similar to those from a raccoon, but they can easily be differentiated by their back paw prints. A beaver’s back paws have five long toes, and the prints will probably show signs of some of their webbing on their back feet, according to Outdoor Life. Their back prints are also much larger, about 6 inches long compared to about 3 inches long for their front tracks.

Birds

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Bird tracks are easy to distinguish from other animals because they have only three toes, but it can be hard to tell one bird’s prints from another. Small birds obviously have smaller tracks than larger birds, but telling a robin print from that of a red-winged blackbird, for example, will likely be difficult.

A few clues can help you determine what kind of bird left behind the tracks. For example, waterfowl like geese and ducks have webbed feet, while birds of prey, such as hawks, have claws on their toes. The pattern of the tracks can be telling too. For example, sparrows hop, so their two prints always appear side by side, Outdoor Life reports. Pigeons, on the other hand, will have alternating prints because they walk while on the ground.

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(Lead image by Glenn P. Knoblock)

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