Animal Tracks You Can Identify in Your Yard

Learn to decipher who's behind the flurry of activity happening near your home.

Crows leave a distinct track, especially in the snow. (Photo: Ostranitsa Stanislav/Shutterstock)

Have you ever wondered who visits your backyard when you aren't paying attention? Or perhaps you don't suspect anyone at all, though you'd probably be surprised to know how many critters come visiting your yard or the park down the street.

If you're interested in growing your skills as a naturalist, learning animal tracks is an excellent place to start. There is a handful of common species likely to hang out in most suburban and even urban yards, which means you might not even have to leave your own neighborhood to gain skills in animal tracking.

Winter is a wonderful time to begin this new exploration. The season brings rain, snow, frost, and ice, and while the weather might be chilly, the ground is ideal for spotting fresh animal tracks in the mornings. Pull on a coat and pair of boots, and head outside to see if you can spot these five common types of tracks.


Raccoon tracks are easy to spot in the snow. (Photo: JT8/Shutterstock)

Raccoons are perhaps the most conspicuous of urban and suburban neighbors. These nocturnal animals spend plenty of time exploring the streets and park pathways in their nightly explorations for food. Thanks to this uninhibited behavior, their tracks are usually all over the place in the morning, and especially visible after a midnight smattering of fresh snow.

Raccoon tracks are a great place to start your education because they're relatively easy to identify. They usually look like tiny human handprints, measuring two to three inches across. Five long digits, shaped much like four fingers and a thumb, make up the front foot. And five long digits with a more forward-pointing "thumb" and a somewhat larger C-shaped palm pad make up the back foot.

Raccoons walk in what's called an "extreme overstep walk," in which the rear foot lands next to the opposite front foot when the animal takes a step. Their track pattern, therefore, usually shows a front foot and the opposite side's hind foot right next to each other, then another front and opposite hind right next to each other, and another again as the raccoon continues on its merry way down the street—another great characteristic that will help you identify a raccoon track. The distance between each gait can range from 10 to 18 inches, depending on how fast the raccoon is moving.

In the image above, you can see a front left foot next to a rear right foot.


Deer footprints are easy to see in many different substrates. (Photo: Chris Brannon/Shutterstock)

If you live in suburbia where there are plenty of gardens around, you very likely have deer as hungry visitors either to your yard or those around you. If you've never noticed before, keep an eye out for these upside-down heart-shaped tracks, and suddenly you'll be seeing evidence of deer everywhere!

Deer are a great species to look for when you're learning to notice animal tracks because they are common animals, have a very distinct print, and the prints usually register clearly in all types of substrate, from mud and sand to grass and even moss. They have a straight gait, with the rear foot landing exactly where the front foot just was.

Check out a field guide to see what species of deer live in your area. Depending on where you live, you may have white-tailed deer, black-tailed deer, or mule deer. Also check out other hoofed animals that live in your area. You might also have elk, moose, sheep, or even wild pigs that pass through your suburban town. Learn to distinguish the size and shape of each, and you'll be able to see more detailed narratives written in the dirt!


Rabbit tracks look like a tiny strip of pegboard in the snow. (Photo: Lars Kastilan/Shutterstock)

Just as deer are common visitors to gardens, so too are rabbits. After a fresh snow, you're likely to see tracks that look like this in yards, along park paths and roadways, and even on college campuses and similar rabbit-friendly habitats.

Rabbits like to have cover to dash under, so check for tracks near the base of trees, bushes and along hedgerows. You'll likely see the tracks bounding directly from one bush to another as a rabbit bolts between hiding places, or circles a bush as it feeds.

Notice the distinct track pattern of a rabbit and you'll have an easy time spotting them in the future. When a rabbit bounds (which is pretty much the only way it moves), it lands one front foot then the other, and the two hinds land side by side ahead of the front feet. Always look for the repeating bound pattern; you'll see it as groups of four tracks that form a tall, thin rectangle. Squirrels, by contrast, have a blockier bound pattern.

In the image above, a rabbit is bounding from the bottom left corner of the photograph to the top right. Just remember, "Front, Front, Hinds. Front, Front, Hinds."


The front and rear feet of squirrel tracks are easy to distinguish in the snow. (Photo: Natalia Sokko/Shutterstock)

Have a bird feeder in your yard? Then you've probably noticed squirrels trying to figure out how to steal those seeds! Squirrels can be found in yards, streets, and parks in even the most densely populated urban spaces. Eastern gray squirrels are probably the most well known, as they tend to be fairly bold, so they're easy to spot. But depending on where you live, you might have gray squirrels, fox squirrels, red squirrels, Douglas squirrels, or maybe even white squirrels if you're lucky. Check out field guides for your area to find out who's hanging around. Then head outside and look for their relatively conspicuous tracks.

When looking at squirrel tracks, notice the front feet have four digits (or toes) and distinct proximal pads (dots at the bottom of the track), while the hinds have five digits and don't show those proximal pad "dots." You'll also likely see the sharp claws of each foot register in the snow. In the photo above, the two hind feet are on the outside of the track pattern, and the two front feet are on the inside. If you follow squirrel tracks, they'll often lead you to the base of a tree.

Squirrels usually either walk or bound when moving around, and when they bound, the distance between sets of tracks can be impressively big! Reference your field guide for specific details about the tracks of squirrel species in your neighborhood, including the size of the feet. This will help you tell species apart if more than one lives near you.


Fox tracks are difficult to discern from domestic dog tracks, but it's possible. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

Another common visitor to many suburban backyards is the fox. Do a little research to see if you have gray foxes or red foxes around. Both species are known to take up residence near human habitation. This is because they usually aren't hunted by suburbanites, and such close proximity to people helps keep them safe from their arch enemy and direct competitor, the coyote.

Track identification can get tricky with canid tracks, because it's difficult to tell apart the tracks of wild canids—such as gray fox, red fox and coyote—from domestic dogs large and small. However, there are a few tell-tale marks that can help you figure it out.

The tracks shown here are from a gray fox. Notice that the overall shape is oval, the toes are narrow and pointed forward, and the nails are sharp and show up as a dot above the toe. The prints are generally about 1.5 inches wide, 2 inches long. These characteristics are typical of other wild species including red fox and coyote. Domestic dogs usually have a slightly more rounded overall shape as the outer toes point more outward than directly forward; a rather bulbous or bulky-looking heel pad; and nails that show up as large, distinct, and often (but not always) connected to the toe pad. In fact, the nails are one of the most conspicuous aspects of a domestic dog track. They simply don't stay as short and sharp as those of wild dogs.

Another way to tell apart wild canids from domestic dogs is to look at the track pattern. If you follow the trail, you'll notice that wild canid tracks usually have tidy gaits that are spaced roughly 12 inches apart. These move around in a direct, energy-efficient way and take paths (such as side streets, alley ways, and hidden trails) that domestic dogs don't. Also notice that they often don't have human footprints anywhere nearby. A domestic dog's tracks will likely also have human tracks around, and they'll usually show a "messy" gait as they wander on leash sniffing things or bound around with joyful abandon if they are off-leash. Going beyond a single track and taking in the trail as a whole will help guide you toward a certain answer of whether you're looking at a fox or a dog.

Look for field guides specific to your region that feature tracks and signs, along with animal ID information. Ask more experienced naturalists to take you on hikes to help develop your identification knowledge, or contact nearby state parks or nature preserves to see if they have guided walks. Keep growing your skills at wildlife tracking by learning the tracks of more of your many animal neighbors, and learn all about the wild stories happening around you.