Footprints in the Snow

A couple of days ago I trudged out into an unshoveled 4” snowfall to get the morning paper, shivering against the breezy 4° air.  A single set of animal footprints crossed at right angles to the walk from the front steps to the driveway, then angled down toward the driveway and the street.  Near the street the single set of prints became two, one heading straight across the street and the other angling slightly to the right, uphill.

Without even looking at the prints closely I could be pretty sure a fox left them.  Fox prints look a lot like dog prints in their pattern and their shape.  The distance between steps suggested something about the size of a fox.  But of the possible animals of approximately that size and gait that could have left the prints, only the fox has the distinguishing characteristic of habitually walking exactly in the set of prints it (or another fox) left earlier.  The animal in question probably came (as the foxes around here often do) around our house from the back in the frigid near-zero pre-dawn, crossed the street on its “daily rounds,” and returned from up the street (which had been plowed) before rejoining the trail of prints it had already blazed.

Songbird prints

Songbird prints, headed toward the lower left.

A while back a light overnight snow left a powder in which foxes, dogs, and songbirds left their marks.  The birds leave tiny little tracks with three toes forward, splayed out, and one toe back.  So you follow their direction by going in the opposite way from that pointed to by their arrow-like prints.  Dogs, which by law here in the built-up suburbs must be on a leash, almost always leave a print-trail next to a set of human prints.  They are characteristically near or on the sidewalks, and they have a certain meandering quality that reflects the dogs’ tendency to sniff around, chase off after scents, and stop for toileting purposes on occasion.  After all, most of them get out only about three times a day, and they have to collect the most possible information from the “news of the day” left by their canine peers.

fox prints

Fox prints, headed toward the right.

Foxes are far more purposeful.  They leave largely straight-line tracks, and those lines may just as easily skirt the drip lines of foundation plantings, where the snow is shallower or absent and potential prey may be nested, as go along the sidewalk.  Fox prints usually suggest a brisk trot, with four paws coming down at equally spaced intervals, but on occasion break into a swift run that has more of a two-by-two pattern, and snow scuffed by rapid foot motion.  On the earlier snow dusting, there were parallel single fox tracks between our house and the neighbors’, which then turned uphill and past the side of their house.  The interval was so consistent that I guessed the prints were left by a pair walking together, but the closer inspection showed one set coming and one going the opposite way, so they probably represented just one animal on its rounds.  But these tracks are the ones that piqued my curiosity enough to do some online research about tracking foxes.  I found a veritable trove of information on the Internet, on which my current knowledge is based.

Dogs and foxes have similarly shaped prints, with four oval pad marks clustered in front of a larger, more triangular rear pad.  Most dogs have paws with a bigger contrast in size between the rear pad and the others; in foxes the size is much more nearly uniform among the five.  Front and rear feet are subtly different, but I’m not confident of telling them apart.  The claws do not always leave a discernible mark in the snow, while some dogs’ do and some don’t.  I don’t know if the distinction is one of breed or grooming.  And fox prints are often more blurred than are dogs’, because there’s much more fur on the bottom of fox feet.

Squirrels and rabbits also leave prints around here fairly often.  They of course represent one of the principal reasons for the tracks of the foxes, who need food to metabolize as they ward off the extreme cold of mid-winter.  I looked at those tracks one that recent frigid morning and thought winter gives our foxes a very hard way to make, quite literally, a living.

And here, apropo of nothing but the title, is Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys playing a song dating back to 1945, “Footprints in the Snow.” The elegant, subtle fiddler is Kenny Baker.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.

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