Bird Tracks & Snow




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Animal Tracks: Characteristics
Bird Tracks & Snow
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By Gillcraft

Snow as a Tracking Medium

IT is impossible to attempt in any way to classify the tracks of birds with the same completeness as those of animals, because the tracks of several birds are exactly like those of domestic fowls, and the tracks made by young birds of one kind are somewhat similar to the tracks made by old birds of another kind.

The locality where a given track is seen is the most important point to be considered. If tracks, similar to those of the common or garden hen, are found at a considerable distance from a farm, or any human habitation, it is usually safe to deduce that they were made by a wild bird.

The main differences that will be noticed are between the bird that perches in trees, the bird that walks on the ground, and the bird that lives on the water. The tree-percher - sparrow, chaffinch, thrush, etc. - generally hops along the ground with both feet together and in line with each other. The ground-walker - hen, pheasant, grouse, and so on-walks along somewhat like we do, first one foot and then another. The water-bird - duck, goose, swan - waddles along with its toes turned in.


Amongst the tree-perchers it is possible to identify one kind of bird from another only by the size, and now and then by a tail-mark. As I have already indicated, however, size is apt to deceive, but at certain seasons of the year, when the young birds have grown up, there is a greater chance of making an accurate decision. For instance, the chaffinch leaves a small mark, with sometimes the flick of the tail showing on the ground; the sparrow's track shows larger marks; the thrush is again larger and the hops it makes are longer. The ground-walkers are mostly game birds, and it will be found that the toes of the game birds are set much wider apart than those of, say, rooks and blackbirds. The angle of the outside toes of game birds is set at, or greater than, a right angle, whereas the angle formed by the outside toes of other birds is less than a right angle. Again it will be noticed that the toes of the game birds are of even thickness almost to the tips, while the toes of others taper. Pheasants and partridges especially have peculiarly smooth toes which leave a clean-cut impression, while such birds as pigeons have coarser scales which leave a far less cleanly-cut impression. The pheasant's track, however, is larger than that of the partridge, and its middle toe stands almost in a straight line with its tail. The cock pheasant trails his tail behind him. The snipe makes neat tracks which might be mistaken for the tracks of other birds, if it were not for the little round holes here and there, which show where it has probed for food. The woodcock's tracks are rather similar, but larger, and the beak marks are also found.

The tracks of water-birds are usually so much alike that again only the difference in size makes it possible to distinguish between the species. Their webbed feet clearly distinguish them from the ground-walkers and tree-perchers. If you notice that there are both ducks and geese in a pond, then you will be able to distinguish the tracks of the geese in the mud from those of the ducks. If you do not know that there are either ducks or geese near about, it is difficult for you to say which of the two, if either, made a particular track that you have come across.

Mention should also be made of the various Gulls and other sea-birds which will leave slightly different tracks on the sand, and of another division of water-birds into waders and non-waders. The feet of the waders may show slight webbing but more usually it will be found that the toes are long and stand well out from each other so as to give a greater surface on which the bird can walk in the mud.

The trained keeper in pursuit of game birds usually pays more attention to other signs than the tracks he may be able to see on the ground. Feathers will be found in places where birds have taken sand-baths, small paths leading here and there in the grass will show where birds have eaten. The place where a bird has been feeding, as well as the food itself, will give a clue to its identity.

Undoubtedly the snow is the most suitable medium for bird tracks. A party of us were out looking for tracks in the snow-covered fields one March morning, when we came upon the tracks of a pair of partridges. Evidently they had come down to a small depression in the ground in the hopes of getting a drink, a nearby pond was frozen over. But there was no water there, and they had obviously had a tiff, for the tracks separated from each other, growing wider apart. Then one, the hen bird, I think, said to herself, "Well, he is not such a bad fellow, even though he does make mistakes sometimes," and started to sidle in towards her mate. He wasn't having any just then, his pride had been hurt, and the other beat a hurried retreat to her own line. Shortly afterwards the tracks of the two grew closer together until they met. There was some billing and cooing, for the snow was much trampled and the marks of wings showed here and there, and then the pair flew off happily together, and their tracks were no more seen.

The snow not only shows the marks made by the feet of the birds but the marks of their wings and tail as well. For instance, when a magpie alights on snow it will leave a clear impression of its tail-feathers as well as of its outspread wing-feathers.

When the snow is on the ground we have one of the very finest opportunities for the practice of tracking. In the back-yards in town you will be able to see the tracks of birds, of dogs and cats, and possibly of other animals as well. In the country it is impossible to walk far without encountering numerous tracks of animals and birds. With a little practice, the Scout should be able to differentiate at once between the various tracks he comes across. Those who live in countries where the snow lies for some months should become very proficient in distinguishing one track from another; but I have noticed in the winter in Switzerland that the many interesting tracks, which made the more interesting my own poor essay to learn the art of Skiing, passed unnoticed by most people.

It is not so easy, however, to make as accurate observations in the snow as you might expect. The actual condition of the snow governs the track marks that are made in it to an appreciable degree. Whereas an animal will leave a normal, clear track in snow an inch or two deep, or in deeper snow which has a hard surface, in deep, soft snow the whole appearance of the track will alter. On hard snow a rabbit's track is easy to identify, but in soft snow it is very difficult to reconcile the large track marks he makes with his normal size. Again, animals which do not leave a tail-mark on hard ground may leave a very distinct tail-mark in the snow.

The snow also offers very favorable opportunities for the recording of tracks by camera. A folding pocket camera will secure pictures of tracks which will be of interest for their own sake, and will also be of use for instructional purposes.

A distance of from three to five feet will give good photographs of average-size footprints, while a distance of ten or twelve feet will give a view of the trail. Naturally, if a reflex camera is used, it can be focused to a nicety. It is the shadow that affords most contrast in snow tracks, so that a sunny day will give the best result, especially at tunes when the sun is low.

But it is not necessary to wait for the snow to photograph tracks. Good pictures can be taken of tracks in mud or sand, especially the wet sand of the foreshore.

Training in Tracking

Outdoor Skills






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What Is It All About? ] General Training of the Senses ] Observation Indoors ] Observation Outdoors ] Training in Tracking ] Human Footprints ] Booted Tracks ] Human Tracks ] Human Tracks: Characteristics ] Tire Tracks ] Animal Tracks: General ] Animal Tracks: Characteristics ] [ Bird Tracks & Snow ] Tracking Rules ] Appendix ] Foreword ] Author's Note ] Scouts Cubs ]

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Last modified: October 15, 2016.