Animal Signs


There is no program I enjoy teaching more than Animal Signs. Whenever I go outside to look for animal tracks, I feel like I am recreating an episode of a crime scene investigation show. You can deduce where an animal has been, what it ate and if it interacted with other animals, simply by looking at tracks and animal signs in the snow!

We had a perfect day to look for animal tracks, the temperature was 37 degrees and after Friday’s rain; the snow on the ground became the perfect consistency to find animal tracks! A group of about 20 came on the hike, many of whom are Friends of the Arboretum members, which is the group that funds these free public tours on Sundays, I was very happy to see so many members on this hike.

There were so many animal tracks behind the Visitor’s Center, that I decided we should start our hike there. The first thing we found were a lot of turkey tracks and scat; I explained that we have a hundred turkeys that call the Arboretum home, so it isn’t surprising to see so many signs from turkeys. The next thing we encountered were tiny little tracks leading to a tunnel in the snow. I explained that we were looking at mouse tracks. If there are any animal tracks that you could label as “adorable”, I would label mouse tracks as adorable. The tracks are so tiny and sometimes you can see their tail dragging behind them in the snow! Mice create tunnels under the snow to find food, stay warm and hide from predators. We continued to walk and saw some rabbit tracks. I told the group that rabbit tracks are unique because rabbits hop with their back legs in front of their front legs, so their tracks look triangular in shape. See the picture below.


Not only did we see rabbit tracks, we also found rabbit scatand shrubs gnawed by rabbits. I explained that rabbit scat is very dry and circular; then I created a bad image in everyone’s mind when I compared rabbit scat to the cereal Cocoa Puffs. I asked how many people in the group gardened at home; about half of the group raised their hands. I explained that if you are a gardener and something is eating your crop, you should know how to identify rabbit sign and deer sign (two animals that commonly damage gardens). The gnawed shrubs we encountered were chewed off to a sharp point, almost as if someone cut it off with pruners. I explained that rabbits have sharp teeth and create sharp cuts whereas deer use their back molar teeth and rip apart branches, leaving the end of the branch frayed.

rabbit deer browse

We found another set of tracks that looked like it could be a mink, but after taking measurements we determined that the tracks must also be from a rabbit, the rabbit just stepped in such as way that the toes looked a little different than the rest of the tracks. I explained to the group that when you are looking for animal tracks, it is easy to get overly excited and misidentify something because the animal shuffled its feet or took an unusual step.
Someone in the group pointed at a new animal track, this one had 4 toes and claw marks. I told the group that it couldn’t be a cat because cats retract their claws. The track measured out to be about 7 centimeters long, which is the correct length for a coyote track. Someone asked if it could be a fox track, foxes have smaller paws and their toes are spaced out further than a coyote’s; we were definitely looking at a coyote track. We also saw coyote scat further down the trail. The coyote scat was centered perfectly in the middle of the trail, I explained that coyotes purposely do their business in the middle of the trail to mark their territory; other coyotes see it and know not to invade another coyote’s space.

I let the group decide where to go next, since I was very confident that we would see a lot of animal sign no matter where we went. The group decided to go Wingra Woods. We walked through Longnecker gardens where we found several deer tracks. I told the group that I think deer tracks look like hearts, since they are a hoofed animal with two toes. I asked which way the deer was walking. The group was unsure, so I told them that the “point” of the heart-shaped track points to where the deer was walking. After I said that, the group understood and knew which way the deer went.

deer footprint

After a long hike through the snow, we made it to Wingra Woods. We noticed tracks that went in between a few trees and then disappeared at the foot of a tree. The group figured out that it must be squirrel tracks, since a squirrel would be a likely animal to climb the tree. They were absolutely right, it was squirrel tracks and then I asked them to look at the track pattern. Squirrel tracks can be confused with rabbit tracks, since the two animals are similar in size, but squirrels walk differently. We noticed that squirrel tracks were sort of square-shaped instead of a triangular shape, like the rabbit tracks. Squirrels tend to jump and land on all four legs at once, which explains the square-shaped tracks.

As we walked to Skunk Cabbage Bridge, we saw another set of tracks that looked like coyote tracks, but bigger. I told the group that they were tracks of a domestic dog. Unfortunately some people do not realize that pets are not allowed in the Arboretum and they must have walked their dog through one of the trails. The Arboretum recently made new signs stating that no pets are allowed, I hope more people read these signs and realize that we cannot have pets disturbing wildlife. Someone found a pile of small black and white feathers on the trail; I determined that they must be feathers from a Downy Woodpecker since they were the right size and color. We did not see any blood or other markings near the feathers, so we assumed that the bird must have escaped from whatever attacked it.

We reached Skunk Cabbage Bridge and I read a page from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac from the chapter “January Thaw”. We turned around and started to head back to the Visitor’s Center. We all stopped when we saw long strains of fur on the trail. The fur was mostly a red, rusty color with a little white on it; we determined that it must be coyote fur, since there were a lot of coyote tracks around.

We stopped again when we discovered a new animal track!

opossum trail

This track had 4 toes grouped together with a fifth toe sticking out at almost a 90 degree angle. We found opossum tracks! I said that opossums like to sleep in hollow trees and that there are plenty of hollow trees in these woods they could use.

After we walked behind Overlook prairie we discovered a rather gruesome site. A cottontail rabbit became a meal for a coyote. We found blood-soaked snow and rabbit fur everywhere. At least it gave everyone an opportunity to see rabbit fur up close. It is also good that the coyotes are keeping the rabbit population under control; if we had too many rabbits in the Arboretum, we might end up losing a lot of rare plants because the rabbits could eat them all.

We ended our hike a little late, but we had such a great hike that nobody seemed to mind. We found animal signs from 8 different animals; I think we had a very successful hike!

Samantha Bailey, Naturalist

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.