The snow must have been a foot deep in our backyard, and my son and I thought it was a perfect winter afternoon to look for animal tracks. Nothing to it, we figured. Were we ever wrong! After a good half-hour of hunting, we'd found plenty of holes - but nothing we could positively identify as an animal's paw print. We needed help. We found it at the Blue Hills Trail-side Museum, a few minutes' drive from our house. (If there's a natural history museum near where you live, that's always a good place to start finding answers to your questions.) Helga Burre is a naturalist at the museum who teaches people how to track animals - in winter snow, spring mud, and summer sand - and she offered to take us on a hike through the snow to look for prints.
``Tracking is a lot like solving a mystery,'' she told us. ``You put together all kinds of clues, from knowing about snow conditions to being able to recognize animals' prints, and then you try to come up with explanations for what you find.'' We had walked a few minutes into the woods when Helga stopped beside a pretty big hole in the snow. There were brown leaves around the edge of the hole, but when we got down on our hands and knees and looked inside, it didn't seem to go anywhere.
``It's not a tunnel,'' said Helga. ``It's a hole a squirrel's been digging, to try to find nuts on the ground below the snow. But I don't see any chewed acorn shells, so he must not have been very successful.'' We looked carefully, and sure enough, there were tracks: made by two long hind feet with four toes each, planted right next to each other, and two smaller forefeet - the ``sure sign of a jumping animal,'' according to Helga.
A few minutes later, we came to some much bigger tracks. They looked like dog paw prints, and my son was hoping maybe they belonged to a fox.
``Dogs and foxes are cousins,'' Helga agreed, ``but foxes leave much smaller tracks than these.'' She showed us how to identify the heel pads and the four toes and toenails up close, and then told us to step back a few feet and look at the pattern they made in the snow.
``Dog prints are usually blurry and overlapping because dogs run around in the woods a lot,'' she said. ``But foxes are much more careful about expending energy and they put their hind feet down in the exact same spot as they put their front feet. That's why fox tracks always look like a single row of prints.''
We were just about to cross a small creek when we saw another bunch of prints along the bank. They looked like tiny, slender human hands. ``Raccoons,'' said Helga. ``You can tell by the shape of the prints themselves, and by the side-by-side, walking-gait pattern they make. They must be hungry to be coming out in the snow like this.''
As we continued our hike, we heard the constant dee-dee-dee of chickadees in the pines. We stopped to pick up some dried beech leaves and heard them crinkle in our hands, just like paper rustling. We even spotted a nest high above us that looked like a big ball of leaves - a squirrel's summer home.
When we finally got back to the museum and were about to cut across the parking lot, we found our last clues of the day: a long, skinny track with a small round hole right beside it. Can you guess what it was? (And would it help if we told you the museum is located near some cross-country ski trails?)