I’m no fan of winter, but it does have one redeeming feature: snow gives us ideal conditions to see what our neighbours of other species are up to! Let’s start with the question I get asked more often than all others combined: how do you differentiate among Fox, Coyote, and Dog tracks?
I think of track identification a bit like reading a crime scene. It can be tempting to conclude that Colonel Mustard did it in the study with the candlestick from just one or two clues, but further examination often reveals something completely different. Similarly, it’s important to look at all the clues in the track, from multiple tracks if you have them.
The tracks I’ve chosen for illustration in Photos 1, 2, and 3 are close to perfect, with all the important features visible. More often, tracks you find will be partially drifted in, melted out, or otherwise obscured. I find it helpful to ask myself not only “what is it?” but also “why is it that?” to focus on the clues that are – or are not – there.
In Photos 1, 2 and 3, the colour of the text corresponds to the colour of the line or symbol drawn on the track. Not all the clues are absolutes. Toenails don’t always register in canine tracks (and sometimes do in feline tracks). Not all dogs show a toe drag, and some coyotes do. With Dog versus Coyote in particular, I’ll look at multiple tracks on the trail, and sometimes factor in gait (more on gait in a future post. Spoiler alert: it’s a myth that Foxes and Coyotes always walk in a straight line).
Side-by-side comparisons can also be helpful to understand differences. Photo 4 shows a Red Fox and Eastern Coyote track at roughly the same scale. The difference in size is obvious, but also look at differences in overall shape and details. The Fox track is round, Coyote oval; edges of the Fox palm pad are straight, Coyote curved.
Photo 5 is a fantastic comparison of Domestic Dog and Eastern Coyote (photo by Chase Lawrence Muir, used with permission and thanks!). In this case ignore size, as Dog tracks vary widely. Look at the spread of the Dog foot compared to the Coyote foot. I describe Coyotes as riding higher in their tracks than Dogs; even in animals of similar weight, the Dog track will usually be splayed more and the toe pads will look larger relative to the overall track. Coyote versus dog can be tricky, and I’ll often look at multiple tracks and the overall trail to reach my conclusion.
I hope this helps you identify which canines have been walking around your neighbourhood. Over the winter, this series will look at tracks, scat, and other sign from most of our mammals – plus a few birds. If you’re interested in learning more about track and sign identification, I have an illustrated talk coming up on February 13th and a field workshop on February 24th. Details are on the Courses page of this website.