Tracks & Traces: Your Outdoor Mystery Adventure Starts Here

By Eli Schaffer

Winter is most often associated with snow. When it snows, the ground of the forest and meadow become living records of the animals that live there. While we have had little snow accumulation this winter, there are still opportunities to take advantage of the ways animals leave evidence of their activities behind for you and your children to figure out. Tracks and traces can be exciting to find as you walk outside or look out your window, but they can also offer an exciting adventure of discovery and mystery! An animal track is a mark made on the ground when an animal walks, hops or slides over it. A trace is evidence of animal presence.

Riddles, mysteries, and puzzles are great ways to stimulate a child’s creativity and problem solving skills. They force people to think, analyze and test hypothesis, serving as great practice for using the scientific method in school. In science, students learn that everything happens for a reason and with some observation, critical thinking and experimentation, a new understanding can be found. Finding evidence of animal behavior is an easy way to practice the scientific method through a fun and engaging activity outdoors. There are tracks and traces to be found all year, but winter offers the advantages of snow and some special animal behavior that makes track and trace hunts even more interesting.

Each and every animal lives a rich and complex life, and animals leave evidence of the interactions they have with the environment around them. Let’s imagine you are walking in your neighborhood and find some footprints in the snow that seem to disappear. Could it be a bird taking flight? What about a squirrel jumping up onto a tree? Perhaps it’s a chipmunk diving back into its burrow. Each of these scenarios will be different from each other and you can figure it out!

As the snow falls and grass, sticks and leaves get covered, a new world comes into existence: the Subnivean Zone! Since the ground is often too hard during the winter for burrowing animals like mice and voles to dig the passageways they need, these animals will make networks of paths and living spaces below the snow and along the frozen ground. When the snow melts, these paths can be seen as indentations on the ground. If you find subnivean tunnels, follow them! This can be a great opportunity to make a hypothesis and talk about the life of the industrious little animal that built them.

There is so much more animal evidence out there for you to discover such as deer rubs, fox dens, owl pellets, skat and more. Often, children learn about these things in school or at nature programs like ours at Audubon. You (and your cell phone) know so much, but nothing can replace the joy of having your child take you on a nature detective mystery as you both learn and discover alongside each other. Don’t forget that spending time together outdoors can happen any time of year. Good luck, and happy exploring!

Eli Schaffer is the Center Director of the Greenwich Audubon Center. He is thrilled to help foster meaningful connections with nature for people of all ages through engaging programming with the amazing staff at the Audubon Center.