Reading Stories in the Snow

Reading the Stories in the Snow!

By Terrie Cooper, Community Conservation Director

Winter is my favorite time of year when the secret lives of animals are revealed in their “stories in the snow”. In Wisconsin there are only three mammals that are true hibernators in winter (woodchucks, ground squirrels and bats). The rest of Wisconsin’s mammals, though they may sleep for long periods of time, eventually must come out to look for food and leave behind their stories in the snow.

Having taught tracking for many years at Nature Centers this time of year brings out the curious, adventurous kid in me. It’s like reading a great detective novel where boundless questions and discoveries arise.
  • Who was here?
  • What were they doing?
  • Were they alone?
  • Where are they going?
  • What are they eating?
  • Where are they sleeping?

Learning how to read these stories in the snow is quite easy to do when you learn a few simple identification tips. Let’s start.

1. Look at the overall pattern of the tracks and imagine what size and shape the animal must be to make a pattern like this.

2021 Winter tracking email_Page_02_Image_0002

a. Tracks in a long straight line, with the back foot stepping into the track made by the front foot, are made by taller, long legged animals (fox, coyote, deer, bobcat).

b. Tracks side by side and spaced wider apart with back feet larger than front feet are made by a shorter, waddling animal (porcupine, raccoon, or in this case an otter walking).

c. Tracks with 2 large feet and 2 smaller feet in this type of pattern are jumpers (squirrel, rabbit, or deer mouse).

d. Tracks spaced further apart in pairs of 2, are made by a longer bodied bounding animal (mink, otter, fisher).

e. And what other interesting patterns in the snow are you seeing? (like these meadow vole tunnels in the snow and a grouse walking)

2. Next think about the type of habitat are you in, a forest, field, backyard, streambank? This will be a big clue to helping you narrow down what animal might live here and whose tracks you might be seeing.


3. Can you tell the direction the animal is moving? Follow the tracks to see if you can find signs of food they are eating or where they are sheltering. Perhaps you will be lucky and find scat or tufts of fur and blood which can tell you a lot about who is eating whom. Here’s otter scat I found with shell fragments and fish bones in it and further along the way, I found tufts of otter fur and blood, and later saw a bald eagle roosting nearby. Would a bald eagle really hunt an otter for dinner? I’m not sure how this story ended.


So now let’s use the tips above and start reading the stories in the snow of the most common animals you will find this time of year on our Land Trust Nature Preserves.

Rabbits and Squirrels

Let’s start with a photo you’ve seen before, we have a jumping animal and when it lands, its larger back feet swings around its body and lands ahead of its smaller front feet making a track pattern that looks like this.

So which direction is it moving?

How can you easily tell the difference between rabbits and squirrels? With your finger draw 4 straight lines around the outside of their tracks. The squirrel tracks’ are compact and create a square (Square Squirrel) while rabbits’ longer bodies create more stretched out tracks and they create a rectangle (Rectangle Rabbit). Cool!

Rectangle Rabbit

Square Squirrel

Canines and Felines

Fox and coyote as canines leave a generally straight line of tracks when walking or trotting. You will also usually see toenail marks in canine tracks, look at more than just one track to be sure as depending on the snow depth sometimes the nails show and sometimes, they do not. Domestic dog tracks look very similar to coyote and fox but the spacing between the toepads is usually wider than their wild cousins. Why? They are usually overweight, too many treats lead to wider spaced toes!

Members of the feline family (bobcat or domestic cats), have retractable toenails so you don’t see them in the tracks. Bobcat are here in Door County, but quite secretive and their tracks are hard to find.

Whitetail Deer

Deer are quite easy to identify with their distinctive hoof mark. Where the 2 toenails meet in the front of the foot they look like an arrow which is pointing in the direction the deer is travelling.

Racoons and Opposums

These waddlers have tracks that are spaced apart and when the track is good you can see the tiny fingers on their paws.

Now let’s put your detective skills to work and read some of these fun stories in the snow that I discovered after our first few snowfalls this year.

You guessed it! Otters have been seen more frequently throughout the county bounding and sliding over the ice, and hunting for fish and crustaceans along the county’s inland creeks and lakeshore. If you are lucky you may find their tracks at Kangaroo Lake, Heins and Hibbards Creek Nature Preserves, The Nature Conservancy’s Mink River Preserve, Toft Point, Newport State Park and the DNR’s Shivering Sands Preserve.

And now you’re on your own – answer key is down below, but no peeking!


Answer key:  

A. opposum

B. otter slide   

C. squirrel climbing tree   

D. squirrel right, rabbit left both travelling south                                                   

E. coyote on left, squirrel on right both travelling north 

F. Snow snakes or Meadow vole tunnels?  


Want to learn more? Check out…

Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking

Photos by Terrie Cooper

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