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Discovering and Interpreting Wildlife Tracks and Signs By Deb Essman

Have you ever been alone in wintry woods and found a mysterious track in the snow? Maybe it caused a sudden rush of fear, a “…tighter breathing and zero at the bone,” as Emily Dickenson famously wrote. Who just passed by, you wonder, with a quick glance into the dark woods for clues?  It’s a primordial instinct to be wary of unseen dangers—a predator prey-style response. But the mystery of a track can be easily solved with the right knowledge and a few simple tools!

In Kittitas County, our wildlife neighbors are quietly going about the serious business of survival: foraging for food, looking for a suitable mate, caring for their young, finding shelter, and escaping predation. We may not always observe them in the flesh, but their travels can be interpreted by the tracks and signs they leave behind.

The signs may be as simple as a tree that was gnawed until it fell near a creek, which is the telltale work of a busy beaver. Keep an eye out for the repetitious bite marks around the trunk from their wide front incisors.


Or it could be a clear print in the snow with two small round paw prints close together at the bottom and two much longer prints above them. In crisp snow, you might even spy the marks of 5 toes on the smaller paw prints and four on the longer ones. Whose tracks are those? Bingo—snowshoe hare! Their signature hop, where the front paws land first and huge back feet overstep them, is a dead giveaway.


The secret to identifying signs of wildlife is to keep it simple. First, learn what animals are found in your area. As an example, if you see an equine hoof print in Washington State, which is a track made up of one rounded digit, you can pretty much be sure that it’s from a horse and not a zebra (Until just recently I guess, although I understand the escaped little stripey guy has been found!). For a full list, including maps, of all native Washington mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, check out the University of Washington’s Burke Museum website at

Further elimination can be done by considering the time of year. Bears, for example, typically hibernate and rarely roam around in the winter. Beware, though, because there are always exceptions—a mild winter might rouse a bear early from its torpor.  A bear is plantigrade, so like us humans you will see five digits in their print.

Finally, an understanding of animal anatomy and how they walk is another key piece of knowledge. Whether plantigrade (walking on the soles of the feet like a bear or a human), unguligrade (having hooves like deer or elk) or digitigrade (walking on the toes like a coyote or a cougar), each style dictates how many “toes” you will see in the track, and their placement. Digitigrade mammals walk on their digits, the heel and wrists not registering on the ground, so only 4 “toes” show in their print. What happened to the fifth? If you have a dog or cat at home, look at their front “leg.” See the dew claws? They are vestigial thumbs!  Another way to tell a canine, like a dog or coyote, from a feline, like a cougar, is to look at the symmetry of the print. A canine print is oval shaped and very symmetrical. A feline print has a large pad that is two-lobed on top and three-lobed on the bottom. The track itself is rounder than the canine’s and the toes are asymmetrically placed around the pad. Looking for claw prints at the tips of the toes can also be a clue. Unlike canines, felines have retractable claws, so you are unlikely to see evidence of them in a print. However, there are times when a cat’s claws are evident in the track, especially if they are running, so don’t use this as a definitive field mark.

The shrub-steppe is rich in wildlife diversity. A hike amongst the big sage and bitterbrush might yield mule deer tacks in the lithosol and perhaps a young sapling shredded where a buck rubbed his newly hardened antlers. A coyote may leave scat to mark its territory, and you can easily decipher what its diet was. Is it dry and mostly full of hair? Then it’s been munching voles. Is it soft and full of pits? Then the berries must be ripe!

I always hike prepared to document tracks and signs that I see along the way. Some useful tools for deciphering include a camera, a measuring device (I often use my pocketknife as a known size), maybe a notebook for sketches and descriptions, and a good tracking book or app on your phone to aid with identification.

 I have volunteered for over 30 years at Ellensburg School District’s 5th Grade Camp, where I share my “Whose Track Was That?” presentation.  It includes photos of many of the species of mammals and birds found in Kittitas County that I’ve been fortunate to have taken over the years. They offer a great illustration of the amazing diversity of wildlife that surrounds us. It doesn’t take long before the kids get excited about going outside to see what they can find! That’s always my goal—getting kids to care about our natural world and venturing outdoors.

Opportunities abound for kids, and adults, to get out in nature this weekend at Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe (GISS). Join us for field trips, interactive booths, and evening events with a perfect blend of food, education, and social time. Who knows, you may even find, or make, tracks of your own!


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