Seattle's Child

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winter animal tracking

Winter Animal Tracking: What do you see?

A wildlife biologist shares tips on seeing the invisible in nature

What do you see when go animal tracking in winter? Plenty.

Tiny warblers flit through the forest canopy. We can hear them, but seldom get a good look. The bull elk stalks through the forest, holding his enormous antlers back so he doesn’t tangle in the brush. The woodpecker chisels for food and cavities in dead wood. Small mammals creep along under the edge of down logs. Cougar and bobcat slink around the forest edges. 

These animals are nearly always invisible to our eyes, especially in the winter months.

And yet, with a little practice you and your kids can learn a lot about which animals move through these landscapes. You can learn to see the unseen. The key is keen observation.

Keep a Record:

I encourage nature enthusiasts of all ages to keep a record of what sort of wildlife they observe and encounter in their own backyards as well as in places they frequent. Otherwise, it’s easy to forget details. Keeping records allows kids and parents to compare what they’ve discovered year to year and to become experts on the wildlife that inhabits the places we love. 

Winter animal tracking

Beaver sign. Photo by Ken Bevis.

 Look for sign

Many animals will leave behind what we in the wildlife service call “sign” — that is, something that tells us of the animal’s presence and habit. A tiny feather lying on the ground beneath a tree, a footprint with conspicuous thumbs standing out in the mud along a creek bank, deer hooves in the snow – all these are sign. Take a moment when you see a sign and imagine the animal in their world.

Elk poop. Photo by Ken Bevis.

Investigate poop

Droppings (poop, scat) can help us identify many species. Pull out your record and note the shape, location and freshness of the droppings. Pull it apart using a stick and see what’s in it. Take your notes to the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management   (ICWDM) website, for help identifying animal scat. The experts there ask even more questions to narrow the possibilities and you can too:

  1. Where did you find it? Under a tree? On the trail?
  2. Are there pieces of bone or hair? Seeds or fruit pits?
  3. Where are you? What kind of habitat is it? What animals are common in the region?

It won’t be long until your whole family knows the difference between different forms of deer poop and can easily identify bear or coyote scat.

winter animal tracking

Bobcat paw prints. Photo by Ken Bevis.

Take note of tracks

Deer and elk leave obvious two-toed tracks. Moose have big feet and distinctive tracks. Bears and cougars are very different, with toe pads and sometimes claws visible in the tracks they leave behind. It’s harder to find the tracks of smaller animals, but it can be done. Take phone photos of what you find and check tracks against graphics on the ICWDM.

Tracks are distinctive, but we see them best in certain substrates. Mud is perfect, as is light snow in winter and dust in other seasons. Walking with a landowner east of Colville, for example, it was clear where his big golden retriever had passed a muddy puddle – right after a lone wolf had passed through. The dog track was about 3 1/2 inches long (photo). The wolf track was about 5 inches long, indicating a much bigger canine.

winter animal tracking
Consider critter parts

Sometimes bones or feathers give us clues. Hard and white larger bones are mammal. Bird bones are delicate, and even the largest bird (eagle, raven or goose) has relatively small bones compared with small animals like raccoons or snowshoe hare.

All animals share the same basic anatomy – even reptiles. With that in mind, encourage your kids to do this “CSI wildlife” exercise:

  • Pick up bones, feathers or related matter you find and lay it all out.
  • Using your imagination and knowledge of mammal structure, try to reconstruct the body of the creature from what you’ve collected. 
  • Next, see if you can identify the animal. 
  • As you consider, ask questions: Did the animal die from predation? Was it scavenged? How many pieces did you find and how old are they?

You can try to figure out bird species based on color, pattern and size of found feathers. Seattle Audubon’s Birds of Washington State site is a great resource. Which part of the bird did it come from? What likely happened to the bird? For example, a pile of feathers on a log may indicate a kill by a hawk. Hawks are known to pluck breast feathers from their prey.

Track tree sign

Beavers are the only critter to chew through large tree stems. Deer and elk rub saplings. Woodpeckers leave distinctive holes in trees for feeding and nesting. Bears can strip the cambium off small-diameter saplings in wet forests. Tree sign is among the best signs of wildlife in a region because it lasts a long time.

Wildlife can be elusive, but animals are not invisible when we are alert to the clues they leave to help us understand their world. 

A version of this article appeared originally in Washington State University’s Forest Stewardship Notes. For more information on managing small forest woodlands, please visit:

 More on Seattle’s Child:

“Ice fishing: A hole lotta fun for the whole family”

“Find razor clams by moonlight”

About the Author

Ken Bevis

Ken Bevis is a stewardship wildlife biologist for Washington Department of Natural Resources and writes frequently about all things wild. He has written in Washington State University’s Forest Stewardship Notes. For more information on managing small forest woodlands, please visit: