By Jake McCarthy
Many Michiganders hole up when the snow flies, barely going outside to shovel. Meanwhile, life goes on in the special natural areas throughout the state. A great thing about the fresh snow is that when we do venture outside, it can tell us a lot. Animal tracks, especially those left in fresh snow, can tell a story. They reveal that just because we do not spot many animals, doesn’t mean they are not nearby. There are countless species of animals that we might encounter in Michigan’s natural areas, but learning how to identify just a few of the most common tracks can reveal the secrets of the woods.
The Eastern cottontail rabbit is common throughout southern Michigan and leaves a distinctive track shape. Rabbits step with their front paws down first, and then their much longer hind feet in front of and outside the front paws. You’ll find cottontail tracks most commonly in brushy areas between woods and fields. In winter, when they’re roaming farther in search of food, you might see cottontail tracks just about anywhere.
Ruffed grouse have three-pronged feet, but because they take small steps, their tracks often appear as one long and narrow trail. If the grouse takes flight, the walking tracks may end at a point where they are flanked by two fan-shaped imprints from the bird’s flapping wings. You are likely to see these tracks throughout the Upper Peninsula and northern lower Michigan, especially in stands of young aspen and brushy areas.
Probably the most common animal found track in Michigan snow is the whitetail deer. The most distinctive part of the tracks is the two halves of the hoof. Some people say the hoof track looks like an upside down heart, but the hoof may be splayed out a bit if the deer is especially large. Deer tracks may also have deer claws, small indentations behind the hooves.
Because of their effective defense mechanism, porcupines can afford to move slowly, which is evident in the tracks they leave in snow. The porcupine waddles through deep snow, leaving behind a winding trough. Porcupines eat leaves, twigs and buds and, in the winter, they love to eat the inner bark of trees. For this reason, the deep trough the porcupine makes as it plows through the snow often pauses at tree trunks that have been noticeably gnawed upon.