Quiz #1 Answer: Track ID

Click here for quiz #1. Answer: American Crow I spoke with friend, nature writer, and Yard MD Rob Zimmer recently about crow tracks. I’ve seen Rob pick out bird, turtle, and snake tracks before so he’s an excellent source of information. Referring to the size of the track and the long back toe, Rob said, “since crows are technically songbirds or perching birds, they have that. Pheasants and grouse don’t and they have a more perfectly shaped track.” Rob also mentioned that crows will spend a lot of time on the ground, especially when there’s little snow cover. The most popular guess was pheasant so I asked Rob to elaborate more on the differences. “Pheasants have cleaner prints with consistent, perfectly placed, widespread toes.” Rob also points to the habitat – although not unheard of, pheasants are not usually seen right in town. I did a species search on eBird and only found one reported pheasant sighting in Menasha – at Heckrodt Wetlands Reserve. And while eBird is not the end all, be all of reporting, it’s another clue for which species is more likely. Below are some comparison images I put together from online sources.

Crow track on the left, pheasant track on the right.
Basic track outlines: Crow track on the left, pheasant track on the right.
Crow on the left, pheasant on the right.
Crow on the left, pheasant on the right. Crow tracks are 2.5-3 inches long. Crow track image taken from: http://www.harpercollege.edu/ls-hs/bio/dept/guide/gallery/evidence/tracks/original/crow_tracks.jpg

The image below shows the consistent, “cleaner” track of the pheasant with the wide-spaced toes. Although a few of the pheasant tracks show a small marking near the back toe, it’s relatively short and only shows on a few of the markings – there’s a reason for this, keep reading……

My photo of the tracks from my initial post on the left vs. pheasant tracks on the right.
My photo of the tracks from my initial post on the left vs. pheasant tracks on the right.

So why don’t pheasants always leave a back toe mark? The back toe, also know as the hallux, typically grows at the same level of the other toes. This allows a bird to grasp objects, like a branch. Some bird species – certain rails, cranes, and pheasants for example – have this toe grow higher up on the leg. Since these species spend a lot of time on the ground, a back toe dragging on the ground all the time would be a hindrance. In the images below you can see the shorter hallux growing from higher up on the leg.

Pheasant foot from The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior - a must own for any bird nerd.
Pheasant foot from The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior – a must own for any bird nerd.
The corresponding crow foot from the same guide.
The corresponding crow foot from the same guide. Much longer and lower on the leg versus the pheasant.
Ring-necked Pheasant;
Ring-necked Pheasant; you can clearly see the back toe, or hallux, coming from higher on the leg. Image from: http://www.birdingpictures.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Ring-necked-Pheasant_8882.jpg

Thanks to all who put in a guess, both on Facebook and on the Bird It Up site! I hope this proved to be useful information for you. I learned a great deal myself looking up information and chatting  with Rob. I feel like each piece of knowledge I gain is another tool in my naturalist toolkit and writing these blog posts forces me to do some research that I might not ordinarily do. If you got it right, give yourself a pat on the back and by all means, drop my name at your favorite pub and tell them they owe you a beer on me……just don’t be surprised if you still get a bill. Bird It Up!

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