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Track ID: fox, coyote and domestic dog

The most common PEI track and sign request I get this time of year is to differentiate among fox, coyote, and dog tracks.

I think of track identification like reading a crime scene. It’s sometimes tempting to conclude that Colonel Mustard did it in the study with the candlestick from just one or two clues, but further examination can reveal something entirely different. Similarly, I recommend looking at all the clues in the track, from multiple tracks if you have them. The tracks I’ve chosen for illustration are about as perfect as you can get, with all the key 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.

Size, shape and that 'chevron' - the straight edges of the palm pad - are the key features I use to identify Red Fox tracks.

In each of the three labelled images, 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 my next track and sign post).

Coyote tracks are readily distinguished from fox tracks, but telling them from domestic dog tracks can be trickier. These coyote tracks are text-book perfect. It's not always this easy in the field!

Key features I look for in telling dog tracks from coyote tracks are wider splayed toes, larger toe pads, and an overall "sloppier" look to the track.

Now that you know the basics of what to look for, let’s give your newfound knowledge a test! The last photo shows one image each of a fox, coyote and dog track – tell me which is which in the comments. I’ll post the correct answers in a few days!

This test isn't too hard! Based on the information and photos above, you should be able to tell which of these is fox, coyote and dog.

I hope this helps you identify who’s been walking around your neighbourhood. Reading tracks and sign is a cool skill that can make an Island winter much more interesting. Another part of PEI – untamed!

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