Leave No Child Inside: Searching for signs

The Four Rivers Environmental Coalition, in concert with the national Leave No Child Inside campaign, is committed to ensuring the children of this region will grow up with a strong connection to nature, and, as a result, be healthier and motivated to become its caring stewards. This column is one of a bi-weekly series contributed by Four Rivers Environmental Coalition members to raise public awareness of the importance of access to nature for healthy childhood development, and to encourage families to explore our member organizations’ wondrous places and programs, such as camping, learning projects, and programs for schoolchildren. Visit www.fourriver.org.

By Jessica Vandeboom

In his iconic book, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes that searching for animal clues in the snow is “time not only to see who has done what, but to speculate why.” Aldo Leopold found great joy in searching for signs of wildlife and speculating about their affairs. As we fulfill our own holiday errands, wildlife are busy themselves. Only until snow begins to blanket the ground do we begin to see signs of wildlife otherwise invisible to us.

Winter is a perfect time to search for wildlife tracks in the snow. When doing so, we become detectives of the natural world, locating tracks and speculating about the activities of busy animals.

Upon first finding animal tracks, we are presented a mystery, and only until we begin to study the track does the mystery unfold. Animal tracks are best seen up to a day after a new snowfall. Tracks are seen anywhere from a secluded forest to a busy city park. Impressions in the snow provide us insight into animals’ lives. Tracks provide us clues to what types of animals are out there and what they are doing. What animal left the tracks in the snow? Where did the animal come from? Where is it going?

Thinking about what kinds of animals live in an area, knowing patterns in animal groups and utilizing field guides narrows the identification process. If a track has four toes on both the front and hind track, the impression is from a member of the dog family, including coyote and fox. Animals from the rodent family leave impressions with four toes on the front and five on the back. Raccoons and members of the weasel family have five toes on the front and hind feet. Large, hoofed mammals—such as the white-tailed deer—will leave a two-toed impression.

Animals with close relatives, like the weasel family, have tracks similar to one another, making it difficult to indicate which animal left the impression. Tracks will be in different patterns depending on whether the animal was walking, running or hopping. Viewing impressions early in the day provides clues to nocturnal animals in your area.

As with any hobby or skill, one needs practice and patience to gain experience. Locating tracks in the snow can be enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds. Think not of snow as the end of fall but a time for you to learn more about the wildlife around you. So walk in the shoes of Aldo Leopold and other nature enthusiasts to search for some tracks!

This information was brought to you by the Winnebago County Soil and Water Conservation District, a locally-operated unit of government functioning under Illinois law. The district’s mission is to promote the protection, restoration and wise use of the soil, water and related resources within the district. The district provides technical and educational resources in the areas of soil and land use, water quality, soil erosion in both urban and agricultural land uses, conservation program needs, wildlife habitat and native ecosystem restoration and management.

Contact Winnebago County Soil and Water Conservation District at 4833 Owen Center Road, Rockford, IL 61101, (815) 965-2392, fax (815) 965-2447 or visit www.winnebagoswcd.org.

The Four Rivers Environmental Coalition (FREC) is a nonprofit organization committed to educating and advocating for the protection of the plants, animals, ecosystems and natural resources of the four rivers region. To learn more about FREC sites, events and programs visit, www.fourriver.org.

From the Dec. 16-22, 2009 issue

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