Tracking the Deer Family
Tracking animals is thrilling, especially when you close the gap to where you can see the animal you are tracking. The thing to remember is that big or small, everything that moves leaves signs of passage… if you know what to look for. In this article, we will discuss tracking members of the deer family.
The deer family are classed as ungulates. Ungulates are hoofed animals such as deer, moose, elk, and caribou. According to scientist, at one time in ancient history, ungulates had five toes on each foot, but through the ages have evolved to walk on just two toenails. While looking at your hand, imagine the thumb disappearing and the little finger and the index finger shrinking back into the position of the “dew” claws. The middle finger and ring finger remain as the primary toes, but also shorten up leaving the animal walking on the remaining enlarged toe nails.
Normally, the only time you will see the dew claws register in the tracks of the deer family will be in soft matter like mud and snow, or when the animal is running or going down a steep incline. The single exception is the caribou, where the front dew claws can be seen in the track even when they are walking normally on even ground.
Another adaptation with caribou is how big the hooves are in comparison to the animal. For woodlands caribou and their northern “barren land” brothers to survive a winter's deep snow and summers in marshy areas or muskeg, they need large hooves. Scientists suggest that the large hooves are the evolutionary equivalent of growing snowshoes. Because of the oversize hooves, the caribou exerts about two pounds per inch at the hoof in comparison to a moose at eight pounds per square inch. The caribou’s elongated dew claws also help distribute the animal’s weight, hence the dew claws registering in the track even while walking.
When tracking fresh “sign”, watch for a change in the track pattern…you may be getting close and spooking the animal. Make a point of always being aware of the direction of the wind. Ungulates will often circle back into the wind before browsing so they can scent any predators approaching along their track.
Once, while trailing fresh elk sign, I got so absorbed in following the tracks that I overtook a small herd of elk bedded down in the afternoon heat. I can remember noticing a horrible gamey smell a split second before all hell broke loose with half a dozen panicked elk scattering all around me. It’s a good thing that nobody was there to witness my startled little girl dance.
While tracking ungulates, it is often important to know what gender you are following. Due to the frequent exceptions that happen in nature, there are few indications of gender in the tracks or sign that are 100% accurate. Urine puddles may be the most conclusive sign. Male ungulates tend to produce a stream of urine with the puddle in front of the hind hoof tracks. Females tend to splash urine behind the rear hoof tracks. However, unless you find a urine puddle, you need to recognize the numerous small differences that taken together will indicate gender.
Before we get into specifics, it is important to know that when walking, ungulates tend to step with their rear hoof into the same place that their front hoof just vacated. This is called “a direct register”. The result is the rear hoof print directly on top of the front hoof print.
Aggressive young male deer will often slightly overstep their front hoof track with their hind hoof. Older males will often do the opposite where the hind hoof falls a bit short of the front hoof track. Does, being prim and proper are more inclined to place the rear hoof track directly into the front one.
The primary way to tell if you are tracking a male or female is that in most cases male ungulates walk splay footed (toed out) whereas females have a neutral foot fall or are pigeon toed, (toes turn in). An exception to this is when a female ungulate is in later pregnancy, where the female’s rear hooves will splay out. To be able to check the orientation of the print you must first figure out whether you are looking at the right or left track. This is easier to see with whitetail deer tracks as the outside toe is slightly longer than the inside one.
Mature male ungulate rear hoof tracks will often register slightly inside the front hoof tracks due to a wider, more muscular chest and neck which supports the added weight of the antlers. Conversely, female ungulate’s hind hooves often register slightly outside of the front hoof track due to the wider hips required for birth…basically they have a bigger backside than the male.
While in rut, bucks of all ages will often drag their front hooves. During the rest of the year, only young bucks tend to drag their front toes. This is especially noticeable in shallow snow.
Except during fall breeding season, elk herds tend to be all female or all male. The exception may be a couple of juvenile males in a female led herd. From spring to early winter, small calf tracks will indicate a female led herd.
Tracking is a perishable skill that requires practice to remain good at it. Tracking also requires knowledge of the characteristics of the animal that you are following. Understanding the unique information in this article will go a long way in helping you “read” the tracks made by members of the deer family in North America.
See you on the trail,