Illustrations can help you distinguish tracks in the field, but reading mammal tracks is a skill that improves with practice. Tracks of the same animal can look different in dust, mud, sand, or snow. They will also vary with the animal’s size, age, weight, and movements.
If you want to try tracking as an activity, collect and make a habit of carrying the following gear when you go afield:
Also note the average distance between the prints, and the overall pattern of the tracks. Are all the prints in a fairly straight line, or do the left and right footprints point distinctly away from an imaginary centerline? Does the animal appear to have walked, or waddled, or hopped from place to place?
Where do the tracks go? Do they lead to trees and stop, or do they lead to brush or rock piles? Do they lead in a straight path, or do they meander? Do they seem to follow an established trail made by other animals?
Distinctive cuttings and markings of plants. Rabbits clip vegetation in a neat, diagonal cut. Deer tear steams, leaving ragged tips. Beavers gnaw at the base of tree trunks, leaving piles of wood chips on the ground. Cats sharpen their claws on the bark of trees, and deer rub their antlers on small trees.
Signs of scat. Note the shape and apparent contents, such as bones, insect parts, or seeds. The placement of scat is helpful, too. Some animals, for example, defecate in prominent places — such as on top of rocks or logs or the middle of trails — in part to mark territories.
Remember: illustrations like those shown here are idealized. Dotted lines or gray areas in track illustrations indicate parts that often don’t show under normal conditions. When you see tracks in nature, they are often incomplete or partially wiped out.
Gray squirrel tracks are similar to fox squirrel tracks, but smaller.