An antler lies covered in fresh snow after it was shed by a moose. Moose and deer shed their antlers in the winter, and when you’re a nature detective following tracks in the snow, sometimes you will find beautiful treasures like this one! Make sure you leave it where you find it, though; lots of animals eat shed antlers as a source of calcium. DR. JESSICA HAINES
BY DR. JESSICA HAINES
Alberta is a great place to live. It’s a big, beautiful province full of all kinds of natural wonders. In My Big Alberta Backyard, we introduce you to the unique and interesting wild spaces, diversity of wildlife that live there, that you can find in your province. This time, let’s talk about tracking animals in the winter.
One of my favourite parts of winter is looking for animal tracks in the snow. In the summer, animals leave little evidence of their travels as they move through their wild spaces. But in winter, animals leave tracks in the snow everywhere they go. Their tracks leave lots of hints. Was it a deer or a coyote that walked through the forest? Were they in a group or alone? Were they walking or running? You can learn lots of information by being a nature detective and examining wildlife tracks.
The best time to find tracks is soon after a fresh snowfall when the weather is cold. You can find tracks anywhere. It might surprise you what walks through your backyard when you aren’t around! Check out your backyard after it snows — you might discover that you have a jackrabbit hanging out in your neighbourhood. Go for a walk in a city park — you might spot red squirrel tracks as they run to their stores to collect food. Go to a national park such as Elk Island National Park or Banff National Park — you might find moose tracks where they crossed a walking trail.
If you want to learn to identify the animals that left the tracks behind, count how many toe impressions you see in the snow. Animals in the deer and moose family have two pointy toes. Carnivores, like lynx or coyotes, leave a track with four toes. The mustelid family, which includes weasels and wolverines, leave a track with five toes. If you want to identify the species, there are field guides that can help you — check out your local library!
Follow your nature detective instincts to investigate further. You could follow the tracks to learn even more about the animals who left them behind. You might discover what bushes a rabbit was snacking on — they can reach really high when the snow is deep. Or you might find mouse tracks that abruptly stop — an owl might have swooped down and snatched it up! You could find a spot where a deer made a bed in the snow. You might even find a treasure like an antler that a moose shed as he was walking through the forest.
Now, examine your own tracks. Notice how the shape of your boot shows which direction you were walking. Try walking a few steps and then running a few more. Circle back and see if you can tell by your tracks where you started running. Your tracks tell your story, too!
Tracking in the winter is a great way to learn more about the world around you. I hope you make lots of fun discoveries this winter!
Dr. Jessica Haines is a wildlife biologist and an assistant professor at MacEwan University. She loves to get outside and explore Alberta’s wild spaces, especially if she can take her dogs with her for the adventure.
This article originally ran in Nature Alberta Magazine - Winter 2023.