Winter track identification isn’t limited to mammals; birds leave tracks, too! There’s one entire family of birds on PEI whose tracks are easy to identify: the Crow Family (Corvidae), which includes Crows, Ravens, and Blue Jays.
So far in this Winter Wildlife Tracks and Sign series, we’ve looked at two of the five types of bird tracks: webbed (also called ‘palmate’, with Mallard Ducks as an example) and game bird (with Ruffed Grouse as an example). Today, it’s the classic arrangement (technically ‘anisodactyl’).
If I asked you to draw a bird foot, the classic arrangement – three toes pointing forward and one toe pointing back – is likely what you’d produce. But within this simple structure can be a lot of variation in size and where the toes are in relation to each other. Both of those factors make Crow Family tracks easy to identify.
Our American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and Common Raven (Corvus corax) both have four toes of roughly equal length on each foot. If you look at the Crow and Raven tracks in Photo 1, you’ll see that in each case the middle toe is closer to the toe on the left than it is to the toe on the right. Crows and Ravens both have middle toes closer to their inner toe than outer toe, which makes identification easy AND tells you which foot is which (both these tracks are from the bird’s right foot). Ravens are much larger birds and so have larger tracks, up to 4.75 inches (12 centimetres). For simplicity, I use 3.5 inches (about nine centimetres) as the cut-off: that size or smaller is a Crow and larger than that is a Raven.
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) tracks look very different from Crow or Raven, but also very different from other birds. Blue Jays have narrow feet, with the three forward-pointing toes very close together (Photo 1, right). This gives them a ski-like appearance; they always remind me of a trident. Blue Jay tracks are generally about two inches (five centimetres) long.
Crows and Ravens have similar gaits, while Blue Jays are the odd ducks among the family. The two larger birds walk with a bit of a swagger, leaving a curving trail with toes pointing inward (Photo 2). The claw on the hind toe leaves a drag going into the track, while claws on the front toes leave drags coming out of the track. In addition to size, a key difference between Crow and Raven trails is that Crows can lift off from standing, whereas Ravens need a bit of a running start.
Crows and Ravens spend a lot of time on the ground and so they walk. Birds that spend more time in trees – like Blue Jays – hop. The Blue Jay’s narrow foot and trail of paired, hopping tracks typically five to 12 inches (13 to 30 cm) apart are distinctive (Photo 3).
I admit this family of birds is my favourite, and I have a particular soft spot for Ravens. I’ve lived on my property in Central PEI for more than 30 years and have always had a pair of semi-tame Ravens around. The current pair aren’t the originals, of course – Ravens don’t live that long – but I expect they are descendants. They certainly show the same penchant for following me on my walks and teasing my dogs.
Crows, Ravens, and Blue Jays are everywhere on PEI, so keep an eye out for their distinctive tracks and trails. Another part of PEI untamed!