An untold myriad individual animals — including wood frogs, American toads, painted turtles, black bears, woodchucks, red admiral butterflies, wood ticks and various mosquitoes — are hibernating across the region.

Active animals include some of the warm-blooded birds and mammals that are adapted to find food and shelter in the icy-cold.

In December, snow still is marvelous and elegant. It hasn’t become commonplace and worn out its welcome. A fresh snowfall adds a new dimension to our neighborhoods as it covers our litter, heals the scars, and gives us soft beauty filled with wonder. It also gives us a clean white sheet on which to observe wildlife activity and find out who goes where.

After fresh snow the other day, I walked in our immediate neighborhood and in the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum to check out animal tracks. Small bird tracks were easy to find below our feeders and beneath meadow plants still holding their precious seeds.

I did hear a ring-necked pheasant squawking in a distance but never found the tracks. However, under a grove of red oaks in the arboretum, 10 wild turkeys were scratching in the snow and leaf litter for acorns, and their tracks could easily be seen coming and going from the food source.

Rabbit tracks were numerous. Cottontail rabbits leave city and country areas well tracked-up from an overnight snowfall before we get out with our shovels. I also found both red and gray squirrel tracks that led to and from tree bases, and also tracks left by mice and deer.

I thought back to the hundreds of hikes I led for more than 25 winters when it was my privilege to be the naturalist in the Hopkins school district.

We mainly hiked the trails at Lowry Nature Center, located in Carver Park Reserve near Victoria. On these excursions, looking for signs of deer was always a favorite. We would often find fresh deer tracks, trails and beds in the snow. Fox tracks also created much excitement among the students, as did raccoon tracks that we could count on seeing during warm winter spells.

The students and I learned together that it’s only when we become aware of the tracks and other animal signs that we realize the numbers and types of animal life that share our neighborhoods and natural areas with us.


Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.