Entire populations are awake while we sleep. They are moving about, eating and interacting before our day begins. We may not see or hear them, but come morning, their movements have been recorded in the fresh fallen snow.
Around 7:00 a.m., I retrieve the newspaper from the box and see the first set of tracks. The paw-prints are dainty and round, about an inch across. They are set out in a graceful arc, one print behind the other. I’m not surprised to see the track, for I see it most mornings. It belongs to a neighbourhood cat which prowls a regular circuit up our drive and across the porch. Looking out to the sidewalk, I see where my neighbour has just walked by with his dog. Dog prints and cat prints tend to be similar (four toes per foot with a heel pad) and the pattern is similar (steps are placed in single file). But, if the print is clear enough, you should be able to notice the imprint left by a dog’s claws. Cats, having retractable claws, pull theirs back in while walking. Dogs’ claws are fixed in place and leave a tell-tale mark in the snow. Also, dependent on breed, dog prints can be much larger than cat prints.
From the kitchen, I look out into the backyard. I shake my head at the amount of birdseed that ends up scattered under the feeder. But the seed has not gone to waste. Juncos, white throated sparrows, and mourning doves are all ground feeding birds. This morning I can see the paired outlines of the juncos’ tiny feet as they hopped about under the feeder. Not all birds hop though. Crows, gulls, and mourning doves for example, walk in a more human fashion - left foot, right foot, left foot.
Leading up the feeder is another line of prints. There are groupings of four tiny prints, with two paws in front and two behind, separated by about 9”. These were left by a mouse as it galloped by. Under the feeder, the sets of prints are much closer together and the tail has dropped to the ground and left a drag mark through the snow.
Where there is birdseed, there are bound to be squirrels, and the footprints in the yard bear this out. Squirrel and rabbit tracks look alike, a larger variation of the galloping mouse track. But I can follow these tracks to the base of a tree and the bottom of the wooden fence. I can also see them on the roof of the garden shed. So unless rabbits have suddenly developed the ability to climb up vertical surfaces and then leap onto roofs, it is safe to assume these tracks were made by squirrels.
When identifying tracks, it pays to be patient and observant. Remember, one day, your prints will come.