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Red Squirrel Tracks

I get lots of questions about track identification, but one animal leads the pack when it comes to fooling people: Red Squirrel!  Many people are surprised when I identify their tracks as Squirrel, and some don’t believe me at all. I get it: Squirrel tracks can be very deceptive.  Let’s look at the variations.


Photo 1: The distinctive morphology of Red Squirrel feet can be seen in good tracking conditions.

In ideal tracking conditions, you can see the unique features of Red Squirrel tracks. Most of our wildlife have large palm pads: that big central pad on a dog or cat foot, or on the stylized animal track emoji (🐾). Squirrel feet are different, with individual small round palm pads, as well as the characteristic heel pads of rodents (Photo 1).

 

Tracking conditions are rarely perfect, and so it’s important to be able to recognize the typical pattern of Squirrel tracks and some of their common gaits. Squirrels often move leapfrog-style, with their larger hind feet landing ahead of smaller front feet, just like Snowshoe Hare. Because of this, Squirrel tracks are often mistaken for Snowshoe Hare, but there is a considerable size difference between the two (Photo 2). 


Photo 2: Red Squirrel tracks show the same pattern as Snowshoe Hare but are much smaller.

To make matters more difficult, the Squirrel’s bounding gait can leave very different imprints depending on the speed of the animal and the snow conditions. Photo 3, left, shows a typical track with the animal moving towards the top of the image.  Next to that is a variation with the animal’s two front feet landing very close together making it look like three imprints rather than four. This animal was moving towards the bottom of the photo, and I’ve seen people mistake this variation for hoof or claw prints. Next are Squirrel tracks where the animal’s front and hind feet landed very close together giving the impression of something hopping on two feet rather than bounding on four.


Photo 3: Red Squirrel tracks can look very different depending on the tracking conditions and speed of the animal.

Photo 3, right, shows a Squirrel bound in deeper snow, which is commonly mistaken for a single large foot or hoofprint rather than four small feet. Complicating things further is the fact that Squirrels can bound quite a distance (Photo 4), giving the impression that a larger animal left the tracks.  Fortunately, with a little practice you’ll be able to easily identify all the variations as Squirrel. 


Photo 4: Red Squirrels can bound a considerable distance!

Red Squirrels are common across the Island, especially where there’s Spruce, Pine, or Fir. They’ll eat seeds (as those with bird feeders know all too well!) and feast on conifer cones as if they were corn-on-the-cob. Apples, berries, and nuts are also popular menu items, as are fungi.  As I described here (https://www.pei-untamed.com/post/red-squirrels-caching-mushrooms), Squirrels carefully park all sorts of mushrooms in Spruce trees around my property to dry them for winter storage.

 

Red Squirrels are not vegetarians though and won’t pass up a meal of bird eggs or nestlings. One of my favourite encounters came while leading a UPEI biology class on a field trip back in the 1990s. We found a Red Squirrel happily munching on a Robin nestling. It had already eaten the head (best part!) and was working its way down the body. I had a pretty good idea which students had a future in biology by their reactions.

 

Squirrel tracks are easy to find and to learn, which is a great way to get to know PEI untamed.

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