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Weekly Challenge #12: Encourage Inquiry Through Winter Wildlife

November 19, 2013

 The snow is starting to fall. As an outdoor educator I find the weather and snow this time of year to be an excellent facilitation tool. Quite often students come out to the nature centres expecting a zoo like setting and one of the most frequently asked questions is “Where are the animals?”

We try to explain to students that they are here – but as “wild” animals they come and go where they please. Therefore we do not know where they are at any given time. Sometimes I will joke with the students and say something along the lines of … “This morning I had a meeting with all the forest animals. I had my morning coffee in hand and told the buck that at 10:30 I’d be walking past the Trailhead sign. He told me he’d meet us there and stomp and snort a bit but obviously he got distracted because he is not here as promised.” Kids usually catch on and begin to comprehend.

But winter adds a new dimension. And that dimension is “Time” … The animals may not be present when we walk by – but thanks to the pristine snow conditions in winter, we can tell that they were present. Their tracks and droppings, not only tell us that they are indeed present but where they went.

This winter you can expect a few of the Weekly Challenges for Environmental Education to be focussed on Winter Tracking but this week we’ll start with basic identification. There are some great templates and even online quizes on winter track identification such as this one from Boys Life magazine. However, in my mind there is not better concept than going out first hand and experiencing nature’s perfect Smart Board with new stories each day for the telling.

When I am teaching a class outdoors and we are looking at tracks the first thing I ask students is if they can tell whether the animal in question is a walking animal or a hopping animal. Hopping animals tend to have all of their footprints in a group. This cottontail track below is the perfect example of such.


In North America your hopping animals would need to be warm blooded obviously but would include rabbits, hares, mice, squirrels and many perching birds.

A walking animal will make a path  with one footprint in front of another.  Of course the options here are many, they could be deer, coyote, porcupine, raccoon, skunk, or even larger birds like Wild Turkey. Wild animals tend not to meander as much as domestic animals do. Someone’s pet dog may leave tracks to every fence post or tree whereas the coyote or fox likely knows where he is heading and does not have the same luxury of curiosity that a pet would. The red fox that made the tracks below no doubt had a destination in mind.

Following the tracks may lead you to discover other hints. For instance if hopping tracks lead to a tree chances are it is a squirrel rather than a rabbit. If the tracks suddenly disappear under the snow it is a subnivean creature like a mouse perhaps with tunnels hidden beneath the snow.

I encourage you this week to begin that winter exploration – even if there is no snow yet and throughout the winter to take advantage of each and every snow fall as an opportunity to explore and engage your students. Go explore where the animals are and what they were doing.


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