Something has been walking through your backyard.

You’re pretty sure it’s your neighbors’ dog. Except for the way the tracks don’t stop at the bushes, meander around your big pine tree and gallivant onto your porch like your neighbors’ dog usually does. Also, your neighbors have gone on vacation.

So. Maybe a coyote then.

Or a fox.

Or possibly a Canada lynx. Because we have those. Right?

“A lot of people are pretty unaware of what’s going on outside their houses when they’re inside,” said Lisa Kane, education coordinator with Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “You never know who might be trotting by in the middle of the night.”

Most of the time, people are lucky to catch a glimpse of the wildlife around them — the glowing eyes of a raccoon caught pawing through the summer trash, the crash of a deer as it streaks through the nearby woods.

But in the winter, there’s more than a flash of fur and shadow.

There are tracks.

With snow on the ground and animals on the move, it’s the best time of year to figure out who’s around. Deer or moose? Rabbit or otter?  Coyote or dog? (Hint: It’s probably not your neighbor’s Labrador.)

It’s not always easy telling your house cat from a bobcat by the marks in the snow, but it can be worth the effort.

“It’s fun to know who’s living in your backyard,” Kane said.

Mice, turkeys and fox

Even if you’ve never encountered squirrels and pigeons, chances are there are more wild creatures around than you think. 

“I think the average person will actually underestimate what there is for wildlife within their area,” said Jon Rogers, an outdoor enthusiast who works in the hunting and fishing department at L.L. Bean in Freeport. “If you talk to people and you tell them that there are fox, both red and gray, that there may be fisher, certainly weasel, mink, a variety of different things passing through their dooryard in the evening, most of them would never be aware of it because they’d never see it.”   

The animals you have depends largely on where you live. Otters like brooks and streams. American pine martens like the woods. Coyotes like to follow the local supply of mice and rabbits. 

“They tend to ebb and flow from year to year,” Rogers said of coyotes. “As they feed their way through an area, in some cases they’ll move on and go someplace else for a few years.”

Among those most likely to cross backyards around Maine: mice and voles, turkeys, raccoons, porcupines. And, surprisingly to some, fox.

“People will see these little foxy tracks trotting down their driveway or trotting down their road and wonder what they are. They’re a pretty distinctive track,” Kane said. “People are generally unaware that they have foxes around their yard. It’s a gee-whiz for people to see those tracks.”

If you have no idea what’s in front of you, first narrow it down. And play the odds.

Hoof tracks are among the easiest to figure out. Unless your friendly neighborhood alpaca has gotten loose, the hooves probably belong to deer (small) or moose (large).

If the tracks look something like half-finished starfish — three toes splayed left, right and forward — think turkey (large), pheasant or ruffled grouse (small). Crow tracks look similar, but their toes are closer together.

Paw prints are the most common and the most likely to be confusing. Those  tracks across your yard could be a bobcat or your Maine coon cat. It can be hard to tell without more information.

So, second, look at where the tracks are. Cat prints trailing around the house and up your front steps are more likely to come from Mr. Fluffy than a wild animal who desperately wants to avoid humans. Fishers and otters can leave look-alike tracks, but one lives in the woods while the other likes to stick close to water.

“People will wonder, ‘What’s that pretty large animal that bounds and leaves a hole in the snow, and then bounds and leaves a hole in the snow, and then climbs a tree? Like, what is that?'” Kane said. “Pretty often that’s a fisher. You have a very good clue with otters and mink because they’re along rivers, streams and lakes.” 

Third, consider how the animal was moving. Some animals waddle (porcupine, raccoon), or bound (fishers, weasels, otters), or gallop (mice, squirrels, rabbits). Fox, coyotes and other dogs are “perfect steppers,” which means their back paws step into the tracks made by their front paws. 

“Foxes walk in what looks like this perfectly straight line, almost like they’re a tightrope walker,” said Doug Hitchcox, staff naturalist for Maine Audubon.

Also, consider the animal’s behavior. If the tracks meander through the yard, wind around your pine tree and clamber onto your deck, they’re probably from an enthusiastic golden retriever, not wildlife.

“A fox or a coyote is really going to be purposeful. They left point A and they’re going to point B,” Hitchcox said. “Dogs are just one of the goofiest, happiest pets out there. They’ll run all around, they’ll circle back on each other. They’ll typically follow a path humans have created. There’d be no reason for a coyote to do that.”

You might also be able to figure out why the animal was doing what it was doing. Blood in the snow? A hunter caught its prey. Wing marks on snow-covered ice next to a ripped apart fish? Could be a bald eagle took off with dinner. Tiny paw prints under a bird feeder? A squirrel looking for cast-offs.   

“Tracks tell a story,” Kane said.

Tips, tricks and tracks

Still not sure who’s path you’re crossing? Experts have some tricks.

* If the paw print shows claws, think canine. Pads only, think feline. 

* Paw prints can suggest a well-cared-for animal. Wild dogs rarely ever go to the groomer, so pet dogs are more likely to show prints with blunt nails and fur trimmed away from their pads. 

* Stride can give a clue about an animal’s size. For example, a coyote’s tracks will be farther apart than a fox’s tracks.

* Place a dollar bill, pocket ruler or other standard-size item next to a track to gauge its size. This really helps if you’re taking a picture of the track to look up later.

* Take a picture of the track to look up later.

But even experts can get it wrong sometimes. 

Last winter, Hitchcox found canine tracks around the Audubon’s Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. Dogs weren’t allowed on site, so he figured the prints came from coyotes. A lot of them.

“All last winter I had a great time finding all these coyote tracks,” Hitchcox said. “It was great.” 

Right up until a University of Southern Maine instructor posted trail cameras around the area to inventory animals with her students.

“They got photos of all sorts of dogs on the weekend or after hours. People walking them, some on leashes, some not,” Hitchcox said. “It was just kind of like, ‘Oh, man, I was just so confident they were all coyotes!'” 

Which leads to his advice: Don’t assume. Because even if you think you know, you don’t know.

“You almost have to . . . really take anything into account as a possibility,” Hitchcox said.

Experts say books and guides can be very helpful for identifying tracks. So can the tracks poster and wallet card put out by Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.  cards. (For more information on getting those, call the IFW information center at 287-8000.)

Experts also say tracking events and workshops can be good for newbies just learning the difference between a wild turkey and a muskrat. Outdoor clubs, state parks and land trusts often offer them this time of year. One upcoming: Maine Audubon’s “Scat and Tracks ID Workshop” on Saturday, Feb. 20 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Gilsland Farm. The workshop costs $15 for non-members and registration is required online or by calling Hitchcox at 781-2330, ext. 237.

As the winter snows wind on, experienced trackers say now’s the best time to see who’s out there.

“Just explore,” Rogers urged. “You can surprise yourself in what there is going on around you every single day that perhaps you weren’t aware of.”

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Tracking tips

* Get outside with a fresh snowfall. 

* Put something of known size next to the track to gauge its size and take photos.

* Check out tracking books and guides. Clubs, state parks and land trusts often have tracking events and workshops that can be good for newbies just learning the difference between a wild turkey and a muskrat.

* Be persistent.

* Don’t assume. Just because you’ve never seen a coyote hanging around, that doesn’t mean those paw prints aren’t from one. 

* Try your backyard, local walking trails and state parks. Places with high and low areas can be an “animal highway.”

For more information

* The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife information center can be reached at 287-8000.

* Maine Audubon’s “Scat and Tracks ID Workshop” will be held on Saturday, Feb. 20 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. The workshop costs $15 for non-members and registration is required online or by calling 781-2330, ext. 237.


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