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Gardening: Animal tracks have a lot to teach, Pat Munts writes

A set of squirrel tracks goes over some cat tracks telling the observer that the cat was out making its rounds before the squirrel came through. By tracking animals in the snow you can learn a lot about how they live. (Pat Munts / The Spokesman-Review)
A set of squirrel tracks goes over some cat tracks telling the observer that the cat was out making its rounds before the squirrel came through. By tracking animals in the snow you can learn a lot about how they live. (Pat Munts / The Spokesman-Review)

The ground is frozen. The air is quiet, any sound is muffled by the snow that’s been drifting down over the past week. Everything and every critter seems to be tucked in for the winter. However, that is not the case. After a snowstorm, watch closely and you will find the snow covered with animal tracks that tell the story of how the wild critters are surviving in the cold.

My most recent tracking project was to follow three to four sets of cat prints coming up the driveway. We have had several cats hitting us up for snacks on the back steps this fall. One or two might be strays but a couple of others are neighbors’ cats, we just don’t know which cat belongs to which neighbor. Unfortunately, the results of the walk were inconclusive.

However, the cats weren’t the only critters crossing the driveway. In several places, deer tracks covered the cat tracks telling me the deer came through after the cats. Some of the tracks were bigger than others so I could tell the fawns from the does. I didn’t see any buck tracks; they have two dimples behind the main track.

Among the cat and deer tracks, I discovered several sets of squirrel tracks going from nearby pines to the garden where they were foraging for food among the garden detritus. Two very small, clawed front paws with two longer prints right behind made by their back paws. Scratch marks along one trail told me that the squirrel had stopped to check something out as it traveled through.

Whether you live in the city or the country, tracking wildlife in the winter is a great outdoor activity for families and anyone who wants to learn about the world around them. It can be done in the backyard, down an alley, in parks and any wild area. To get started, do a little research on the tracks of the animals you see regularly around your house. There are a number of websites and even some phone apps that will help you become familiar with common tracks.

A couple of days after a fresh snowfall, start following a set of tracks you find to see where it leads. Take a picture of it so you can check your references. Note the number of paw pads and whether claws are visible. Do the tracks suddenly change, meaning that the animal changed its gait? Do they suddenly disappear down a hole?

As you get familiar with the wildlife in your neighborhood, expand your tracking to nearby parks and wild areas. A few good places close to Spokane to visit are the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, Riverside State Park and Farragut State Park in Idaho. Combine your tracking with a bit of snowshoeing or skiing. If you go out, remember to dress for the weather and don’t get so focused on your tracking that you lose track of where you are. Getting lost in the winter is not a good thing.

Pat Munts has gardened in the Spokane Valley for over 35 years. She is co-author of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook” with Susan Mulvihill. She can be reached at pat@inlandnwgardening.com.

 

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