Habitat in the backyard – Part 5: Tracks in the snow

Teach young children animal tracks and how they can find a hidden world in their backyard. As snow covers the ground, you can find out what is going on right next door, even if you can’t be there to see it.

This is the fifth in a series of articles on science activities about the natural world that anyone can conduct with children. This can be done within a family, in a day-care setting, as part of school activities, a 4-H Club or with any group working with young children.

Snow can give a refreshing view to a bleary landscape. When it first falls, it sets the reset button on what you see as you look out into your yard. After a few nights, a story begins to form as the tracks and signs of a cacophony of creatures let you know what goes on when you aren’t watching.

Here are some quick activities to do with winter wildlife tracking:

  1. Identify the tracks in your yard, a local park or playground. There is a good tracking guide available from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.  
  2. Watch your own tracks. Walk or run at different speeds and see how that affects the way the tracks fall. Try hopping or jumping and see how that changes the footprints. Try crawling on your hands and knees and determine how that alters the track patterns. Try to imitate how you think different animals walk. If you have pets or livestock, walk or run with them and make guesses as to how that changes the prints left in the snow.
  3. If you find a track, follow it and try to tell a story. What was the animal doing? Was it walking or running? Did it change its speed? Was it hunting or being hunted? How long can you follow the track? Can you figure out where the animal is sleeping? Get on your hands and knees and see if you can copy the track pattern that you see. More information on track patterns is available online.
  4. How old do you think the track is? Weather is the biggest determiner of what a track will look like. Is the wind blowing snow back in the tracks to make them smaller? Has it been warm enough that the track becomes bigger as the snow melts?
  5. How many different animals are making tracks? Is it one animal moving over and over the same area or is it several animals? How would you know? Is there anything distinguishing about a particular track, such as a missing or bent toe?

Have fun getting outside in the winter and learning what is going on next to where you live and play even when you don’t see it.

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