Survival Wisdom & Know How: Everything You Need to Know to Subsist in the Wilderness
Many people assume that in winter wild animals, like so many of us, escape the difficulties of traveling, feeding, and keeping warm by migrating or hibernating. This is true of cold-blooded animals and of many warm-blooded birds and mammals. However, a surprising number of birds and mammals conduct business as usual, and whenever they move, rest, feed, hunt, or behave in other ways on the ground, a record is impressed in the snow. Indeed, without the use of sophisticated equipment, snow offers one of the best opportunities to learn about the lives of animals in winter.
But why, you may ask, would anyone want to follow an animal around in the winter? Imagine a bright, sunny morning after a snow storm—air crisp, snow sparkling—a perfect day for a ski, a walk, or a snowmobile ride. Traveling into the woods or across the fields, you suddenly intersect a winding trail interrupting the snow’s smooth surface. With a little imagination, you envision the trail-maker walking, waddling, or trotting along. You follow the trail and find numerous clues that reveal this animal’s daily activities.
Perhaps the trail leads to the scene of a successful hunt where the two-print trail of a weasel slowed, disappeared under the snow, and then reappeared, accompanied by tiny drag marks of a hapless vole. It may lead to a spot marking the swoop of an unlucky hawk and the scurry of a luckier mouse; to a place where two coyotes met and continued on together; to a mysterious dead-end where a grouse took off in flight; to a small depression where a moose gently touched its nose to the snow to sniff for food; or to a hill that proved irresistible to sliding otters or mink. The trail itself, whether it meanders or strikes out straight ahead, reflects the behavior of the animal in motion and provides substantial amounts of biological data. More important, following it is fun! But please be aware that in winter animals are generally operating on very strict energy budgets. If you frighten them excessively or harass them, either by pursuing too closely on foot or following on a snowmobile, you may tip the scale between survival and death.
Why a book on snow-tracking when so many fine tracking books exist? During my first winter tracking efforts, I often found it difficult to match the tracks I saw in the snow with the detailed shape and toe counts of my track book illustrations. So often, snow obscured these foot details that are useful when identifying tracks in mud, sand, and sometimes in shallow snow. After several winters studying animals in the field, I decided to compile that information, gathered from my own experiences and from other track books, which proved most helpful for identifying tracks in snow.
I learned that the first rule of snow-tracking is to identify the animal’s track pattern, the trail left in the snow, which is often identifiable even when the tracks are windblown and obscured. Consequently, this book emphasizes track patterns, although print details are always important tracking clues whenever visible.
Mammals are the prime focus of this book because their tracks are the ones most likely to be found in winter. Tracks of birds and domestic mammals are also discussed. The North American animals included in this book are primarily those that are active in winter in areas that commonly receive snow
How animals have adapted to life in snow country is fascinating. Let’s take a closer look at that snow environment. Snow is not just snow. Arctic natives have a surprisingly large vocabulary to describe the various forms of snow and its structure within the snowpack. While some of these variations are caused above the snow by environmental conditions like wind and cold; others, more important to many animals, are caused from below.
In areas where a persistent snow cover occurs, the temperature of the ground surface closely parallels the outside air temperature until snow cover is deeper than 6 inches. With snow cover comes an insulating blanket that retards the natural loss of the earth’s heat. As a result, the bottom of the snowpack becomes warmer than the top (which is exposed to cold air), and a thermal gradient is created in which heat and moisture flow upward. Snow crystals near the soil break down, and their water molecules migrate either to larger crystals or to those above.
Eventually, the bottom snow structure becomes a fragile latticework of large, coarse, granular crystals called depth hoar. This weak layer, often an underlying cause of avalanches, also provides many small animals a relatively warm, stable environment where they can easily burrow, travel, and nest while protected from the cold temperatures above. A dark, silent “undersnow” world is created with intricate systems of runways, tunnels, and burrows. Above, you trod along unaware of the world of activity below you! But if you are observant, you can find holes by trees or shrubs or openings near downed logs, brush piles, or rocks that are entryways to this subnivean (undersnow) world.
Of the animals that do not migrate or hibernate, only the larger ones are able to withstand extreme cold. The smaller mammals, such as shrews, voles, and mice, have such small body masses relative to their body surface area that their metabolism cannot maintain body warmth in freezing temperatures. They go below the snow where it rarely drops below 15°F. Even some spiders can remain active in this environment.
The subnivean air is saturated with moisture—a boon to shrews, which have poor mechanisms to control their body moisture. It is also ideal for scent communication in the hunting efforts of small predators. The difficult times for these small animals are spring and fall when temperatures are cold and the snowpack is beginning or ending.
Small weasels spend much of their time under the snow hunting rodents and using rodent runways and nests for their own. Besides the fact that most of their prey live under the snow, these weasels must also seek shelter here because they have high rates of metabolism, small bodies, little fat, and fur of only moderate insulating value.
Red squirrels are also confined to the subnivean world at times. They make tunnels and runways to reach their cone caches near the soil, and nest under the snow when temperatures reach below about –25°F.
Large mammals have adapted to snow travel through modifications of the feet or legs. For example, the feet of the snowshoe hare and the lynx are large relative to body size. Other examples are the rounded, splayed hoofs of the caribou and the long, stiltlike legs of the moose. The moose’s rear legs articulate so they can be inserted in snow and retracted at nearly the same angle.
When you travel on snow, it’s fascinating to speculate on the ways animals manage to stay active in the winter and to look for clues to where and how they do it.
Steps to Track Identification
Step One: Identify the animal’s track pattern
Taking a walk in the snow, you come upon a series of foot prints or tracks ahead of you. This series of tracks is the animal’s trail. Looking more carefully, you notice that the trail has a track pattern, a distinctive arrangement of the tracks.
• First, you need to identify which of the three main track patterns the trail resembles. To do this, follow the trail for at least several yards in one or both directions to get a feel for the animal’s most typical track pattern and to find additional clues to the animal’s identity, such as scats (or pellets or droppings) or distinctive behaviors (does it climb, fly, or swim?). Perhaps what you first saw was a place where a rabbit slowed from its normal hopping gait to walk and explore a shrub. When in doubt, follow the trail! Here are the main track patterns.
THE ALTERNATING TRACK PATTERN
The first type of track pattern animals make looks more or less like yours. Look behind you. As you walk, one track is made on the right, then another on the left, right, left, and so on. What you see are two parallel rows of tracks with the prints alternately spaced—an alternating track pattern (a, b). Although we produce this pattern by walking with two feet, when four-footed animals walk or trot slowly they produce the same pattern by placing their hind feet neatly in the tracks made by their front feet. Sometimes in shallow snow, an animal’s hind feet fall slightly ahead, behind, or to the side of its front-foot prints, making an offset alternating track pattern (b). However, in deep snow, the animal saves energy by placing its hind feet in its front-foot tracks. Think about following a friend’s tracks in deep snow. It’s much easier to step in those tracks than to make your own.
All mammals and most birds walk, but more often mammals travel in other movement patterns or gaits. Other gaits include, in general order of increasing speed, trotting, loping (a slow gallop), jumping (a bounding or hopping gait), and galloping. Jumping is different from loping or galloping because movement off the feet occurs simultaneously and with equal force.
Some animals that commonly walk in snow, making an alternating track pattern, are the members of the bear, dog, and cat families, and the ungulates (hoofed mammals)—all of which are long-bodied and thus take long steps. Those walkers that are short-bodied (and take short steps) include opossums, beavers, muskrats, porcupines, badgers, skunks, lemmings, and ground-dwelling birds. Marmots, prairie dogs, and voles also fall in this group; however, they often move in a jumping gait. (Group members drag their bodies in soft, relatively shallow snow.) Members of the dog family and the ungulates sometimes trot when snow is shallow, maintaining the alternating track pattern but with longer steps. All these mammals occasionally gallop, but only for short stretches in snow.
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