The kid's fishing pond in front of the Cape Girardeau Nature Center was one of the last spots to hold a layer of ice and snow last week, which made it easy to spot the set of tiny tracks that went all the way across the pond.
Two things about this scenario were particularly favorable for sighting tracks. First, the snow offered perfectly preserved evidence that was easy to see. Second, the easiest place to find tracks is where two habitats meet, such as the edge of a field and a wooded area, or at the edge of water -- like the kid's fishing pond.
Over the weekend I visited with friends from Cuba, Missouri, who showed me pictures of two sets of tracks they sighted in the snow behind their home.
The morning after a new snow is the best time to look for tracks, but a good rain will yield good tracks, too. The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) website has extensive information on tracking, including track guides you can print and take with you on the trail.
The MDC guide gives specific instructions on how to take the track's size and shape into account when making a guess at the size and species of the animal. Deer tracks look like two half-moon shapes. Sometimes two small, round marks appear behind each foot.
Members of the dog family have four toes in an egg-shaped print with claw marks clearly visible. The prints of coyotes and domestic dogs are hard to tell apart. Coyote and fox tracks are much alike, but both will follow old animal trails. Dogs, on the other hand, tend to wander all over.
Members of the cat family have four toes in a round print and their claws don't show. You can tell them apart by their size. Cats stay near towns and houses, while bobcats are found in larger forests with tracks about double the size of a domestic cat's.
Rabbits have front feet that look much like other tracks, but their long back feet are an easy giveaway.
Learning to identify what wildlife is in your area is not only meant to be a relaxing and fun hobby. By knowing what signs to look for, you can get a general sense of the health of your local environment.
In the case of my friends from Cuba, we were able to go online to MissouriConservation.org and compare their photos to sources on the web. We ruled out the possibility of feral hogs because hog tracks are typically wider than they are long. Then we noted the two small, round marks behind each half moon shape and were able to determine the culprit was a deer. The second set of tracks was left by domestic dogs, probably smelling out the scent of the deer.
You, too, can solve the mystery behind tracks on your property and also learn how tracking plays an important role in conserving our state's wonderful wildlife for future generations by going online to MissouriConservation.org.