Reading the trail

In the middle of November there was about six inches of snow on the ground. When there is snow on the ground it is easy to find the tracks of animals. So I went into the woods to read the. story of the trail. Very soon I found a fresh fox trail. As you can see from Diagram 1, a fox track is easy to recognize when there are clear foot-marks in dirt, soft ground or in a thin layer of snow. In deep snow you will see only a row of dimples instead of toe marks.
A small dog’s trail is very much like that of a fox, but each has it characteristics. Look at the Diagram. A is a dog’s trail, 5 is a fox’s trail. At once you see that the dog’s trail zigzags. This is due to the fact that his chest is much wider than that of a fox. The fox dimples are almost in one straight line. Now notice that the dog drags his toes, while the fox lifts his feet clean up and puts them clean down. In this way he can go silently through the woods. Then, at x and x there are some lines

made by the fox’s bushy tail. These things clearly told me that the track was a fox track.

I followed the tracks for a quarter of a mile. Then the track went, not straight but again zigzag, to a hole in the ground. Near the hole lay a dead snake. What happened was clear to me. The fox pulled out a sleeping snake from its hole, killed it, left it on the snow, and went on. After half a mile, he came to a place where the snow was deep and soft.

In this part of the country it is the custom of the prairie-chickens to spend the cold nights in the deep snow. When there is a cold wind and a blizzard, and it is forty degrees below zero, they would freeze to death if they did not hide in the soft snow. The wind fills up the hole and no tracks remain.

The fox knew all this, and when he came to 1 (in Diagram 2) he stopped. His nose said to him, “Look out, there are chickens in the snow further on.” He stopped with one foot in the air. How do I know? Because the little mark ix was made by the tip of the fox’s paw, which hardly touched the snow. Therefore he stood still at this point. Then slowly (I know because the steps are short) he crawled along, sniffing. But at 2 he lost the scent, so he turned back to 3.

Now he could scent the prairie-chickens. He knew they were close. Following his trail, I found a few short, careful steps, then the deep marks of both hind feet, showing where the fox sprang forward just as two of the chickens broke out of the snow, – one at 4 and one at 5, and flew away as fast as they could. But the one from 4 was a little too slow. The fox caught him in the air, fell on the snow with him, ate part of the chicken and ran away with the rest.

Now I understood the meaning of the dead snake far back on the trail. A fox does not like to eat snake, and cold snake on a cold day is a very cold meal. He killed the snake, so that it could not get away, and then went to look for something better. If he found nothing better, he could always come back. But he got a nice hot bird instead, and did not have to come back.

And all of this history of the fox – and I knew that it was true – I got by following his tracks in the snow. I did not see the fox at all.

At another time I again followed the tracks in fresh snow on the ground. Again the tracks told me a very interesting story. Under a bush at A (in Diagram 3) I saw the mark of a cottontail in the snow. Something made him leap out at B. Now notice that the two long marks of his hind feet are ahead of the two dots made by his front feet.



Reading the trail