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Black tailed deer

Tracking footprints

Places and activities    Nature guides    Tracking footprints

Learn how to interpret the stories and secrets wildlife leave in their footprints.

By Metro naturalist Deb Scrivens

Stories in the dirt – a tracking tale

In the spring of 1992, my co-worker and I made a habit of taking a 15-minute break in the day to walk the muddy service road behind the naturalist's office at Oxbow Regional Park. A doe was hanging out in the area, walking down the same section of road at about the same time each day, and it was instructive to observe and compare series of her tracks as they aged in the clay-like mud under the dense canopy of trees. Some days we would see the doe. It was easy to see that she was very pregnant and becoming more so each day.

One day, tiny prints appeared next to hers. They were the tiniest deer prints I had ever seen, just an inch wide, about the size of a quarter. Because we had seen the pregnant deer the day before, we knew that a day-old fawn had made the tracks. The prints were enchanting. They toddled along right at the heel of the mother, then suddenly disappeared, only to reappear eight feet away, all four feet clustered together, indicating a lamb-like leap and bound. That was the first time I could really see an animal in my mind's eye through its foot-prints, and I became hopelessly hooked on tracking.

After that, whenever I found fawn prints, I always measured them and mentally compared them to the prints of this day-old fawn. I was hoping to repeat the experience and find equally tiny prints, but I never did…until this summer.

On a Sunday morning in June, I did a tracking program with five other people on the floodplain at Oxbow. We observed deer tracks that indicated a doe had paced around the edge of a pond, following the fingers of sand that extended into the water. Her feet and her gait were unusual. On one foot, she had a split toe and a toe that was longer and sort of hooked – making it easy for us to recognize the prints of this individual deer. Her gait was unusual in that her hind foot was not stepping in her front track. Instead, it was landing well behind and to the outside of her front foot. As if she were walking bowlegged. As if she couldn't get her hind legs past her fat belly. As if she was very pregnant.

We observed some other nearby tracks made by the same deer. These were also fresh tracks made within the last 12 hours (the sand had not yet been exposed to the hot afternoon sun that forms a crust on the tracks and crumbles the edges). But these tracks were different. The doe's unusual toes had not changed, but her gait had. Now her hind foot overlapped her front track. Her gait had also narrowed and she was not sinking as deeply into the sand. And a tiny set of prints followed hers.

I knew the tiny prints were those of another newborn as soon as I saw them. I measured to make sure. We had found the prints of a doe just before and just after she delivered her fawn. We were looking at a record of a baby deer's first steps on the earth. That Sunday was a birthday at Tadpole Pond.

On the floodplain of Metro's Oxbow Regional Park where this story takes place, one can find clear tracks of red fox, raccoon, river otter, mink, rabbit, squirrel, weasel, crow, Canada goose and many other birds on any given day. Occasionally the tracks of larger mammals such as elk, black bear and cougar are also found in this rich habitat. The Sandy River and its tributaries form a wildlife corridor that links the natural areas along the river with the Cascades. Large mammals make use of this corridor during annual migrations.

Increasingly, tracking is used to determine the presence and range of mammals in wild areas through projects run in large part by volunteer trackers. Besides having the potential to influence the management of public lands, tracking is an excellent way to document the presence and activities of wildlife in an urban setting. It develops our knowledge of place and widens our definition of community, as it provides a window into the lives of the animals that share our space.

See for yourself

For more information about tracking classes and other naturalist-guided activities, check out the Metro GreenScene... More

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