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Inside the Outdoors: Wildlife travels and dramas revealed on the canvas of fresh snow

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

As our calendar rolls over to March, as days lengthen, and daydreams turn toward themes of spring, late winter snows remind us that the transition is a process, not an event. One of Minnesota’s seasonal legends is the “tournament blizzard,” snow-bearing storms that over the decades have seemed to regularly coincide with our high school winter sports tournaments. As if to prove the premise, Minnesota was hit with one of the biggest snowstorms of the winter—historic, in some places—as the girls high school hockey tournament got underway last week in St. Paul. Not all parts of the state received snow in the same amount, but snow was sufficiently abundant and widespread that plows and snow blowers and shovels came out of garages almost everywhere for late winter exercise.

Beyond the obvious recreational bonus for snowmobilers, skiers, fat bikers, and snowshoers—pursuits now on borrowed time—the new snow left a blank white surface, reminiscent of an artist’s canvas prepped with a fresh coat of gesso. In the hours and days after such an event, we’re given an opportunity to spy on the creatures that stay with us and are active throughout the winter. The clues, the evidence, are revealed in the tracks they leave on that fresh crystalline canvas. Sometimes the revelations are startling.

At times the evidence can be seen without even setting a foot outdoors. In the rural area where my wife and I live, wildlife neighbors are as much a part of the landscape as our gardens and ornamental plantings. You learn quickly that anything beyond the four walls of your home and your outbuildings may be considered communal property, at least as far as the local wildlife is concerned.

Whitetail deer easily become acclimated to the humans that live in their midst. They learn that, except during the hunting seasons, they have little to fear from us. In fact, they soon discover that we have some tasty things in common; tasty to the deer anyway. After the recent two-day snow event ended, deer were among the first to punctuate the unbroken whiteness here with their tracks.

In deep snow, a deer’s characteristic heart-shaped hoof prints—which can be seen in soft earth, or where snow has been shoveled—are not visible. But you can also detect a deer’s track by the length of its strides, and by the short, two-pronged drag marks that a deer leaves in the snow as it lifts a split hoof to take the next step.


One such path was made across our deck, not more than five feet from our sliding glass doors. The deer laying down these tracks had clearly stopped at both east and west ends of the deck, where at each location an arbor vitae grows. The common name for this shrub is northern white cedar, and it is one of the most favored winter foods of whitetails, growing in the wild as well as being a commonly cultivated landscape species. Unfortunately for this deer, both of these cedars were wrapped securely in burlap from base to tip-top, denying it a meal.

It was a different story last winter, when—after all the protective fencing and covering I did elsewhere—I neglected to wrap these two, and by spring both had been stripped of their nutritious evergreen vegetation, from their bases to within six inches of their tops. Both were replaced, a lesson learned the hard and expensive way.

A second series of tracks crossed the deck. These were made by a lightweight animal, one that—unlike the deer—could be supported by the snow. Its trail was a series of impressions in quartet groupings. Two larger oblong impressions in front, with two smaller oblong impressions behind, repeated at a southwesterly angle across the deck. One might have guessed that this animal had front feet larger than its hind feet. But just the opposite is true of rabbits—this being one of the neighborhood’s abundant cottontails—and hares. In their bounding strides, the larger hind feet come down ahead of the smaller front feet, a telltale identifier.

Often the most interesting snow tracking detective work requires that you become a winter traveler yourself. In a winter with shallower snow depths, a pair of tall hiking boots might suffice. But this winter a pair of snowshoes is called for.

Both ruffed grouse and wild turkeys inhabit the woodlands near where I live. Both have footprints that are similar in shape, with three toes that point generally forward—two of these angled outward—and one toe pointing to the rear. The foot of a wild turkey is about twice as long, however, at 4-5 inches long compared to a ruffed grouse’s 2-plus inch impression.

If you follow a grouse track backward—in the direction of its rear-pointing toe—you might find a hole or depression in the snow where the bird had lain beneath the insulating surface, a place where a grouse can remain concealed and much warmer than in the surrounding air. If you follow its track to where the grouse is going—in the direction of its three forward-pointing toes—you might just flush the bird, perhaps out of its snow burrow.

Occasionally you may find yourself an after-the-fact witness to one of Nature’s life-and-death dramas. You might encounter a scattering of feathers or fur, flanked by wingtip impressions on either side, and perhaps the suggestion of a snow-disturbing struggle. It might very well be the site where a grouse or a rabbit became the next meal for a hawk or owl. Predation and survival of the fittest are hard facts of life in winter, too.

(For some basics of wildlife track identification, Google “wildlife tracks in the snow,” where you’ll find a number of images and information, some of it provided by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.)


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Mike Rahn, columnist

Opinion by Mike Rahn
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