Telling the difference between canid tracks is hard work, and more than a little tricky. I’ll usually decide tracks belong to a wild member of the dog family, and call it there. I used to be more likely to wade in all confident with an ID, but I’ve learnt the importance of a good dose of humility in tracking. At least for excitable folks like me. Mother nature is wiley. Respect.
There is one surefire tell though. One “definitely-for reals-a-fox” sign that even a tracker playing it safe can feel pretty darn good about.
Fox on our property go through periods when they’re kind enough to leave frequent scent markings, by peeing all over the place. So I can sometimes sniff my way to an ID. (Taking me for a walk involves a lot of pit stops wherever the canids have made… pit stops.) Fox urine has a distinctive skunky/musky smell. And fox in our woods do tend to follow the behavioural cues I’ve read about — fox here tend to tightrope walk on fallen logs, and wander more curiously around the woods. Hopping up on to rocks and dilly dallying all over. Whereas the coyote tend to cut straighter and more focused paths. And the neighbours’ domestic dogs stay on their side of the property line, mostly. (Though every once in awhile our trail camera picks up a very cute beagle sniffing the lens.)
But you can’t always be sure you’re catching the scent at a pitstop, and some fox walk in straight lines, while some coyote might decide to wander. There are big fox and small coyotes, so even print size isn’t necessarily that helpful. Fox and coyote prints are not dramatically different in size, and as the snow melts, even a little, accurate measurements can melt right along with it.
But if you are very lucky, you might come across a print which carries the one definitive sign that its a fox track. And not just a fox, but specifically a red fox (even grey fox apparently don’t have this trait)…
A callus ridge.
On the “interdigital pad”, the fleshy bit between the toes, red fox have a “callus ridge”: a hardened bump that runs horizontally in a sort of chevron shape on their paw.
The other day, I found such a print. Apparently it shows up quite well in mud tracks, but less so in snow. This is only the second time I have happened across a very clear callus ridge in a snow track. I was, to put it mildly, excited.
Here’s what all three of my tracking books have to say about the callus ridge. I cite, and use, all three because they often don’t totally agree with each other, and more’s the better when it comes to cross-referencing.
“The red fox track has one good characteristic that is distinctive, if you have a track showing details. The heel pad has a chevron-shaped or straight “bar” protruding from the hair of the foot… In mud, shallow snow, or otherwise a firm surface, this bar may show without the rest of the pad.”~Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks
“On firm snow, a transverse bar across the heel pad of the red fox may obscure the print of the pad.”~Field Guide to Tracking Animals in Snow
“Red Fox….(d)iffers from other canids by having a ridge of callus on the interdigital pad.”~Scats and Tracks of the Great Lakes
Though scent-sniffin’ already had me convinced that our woods are full of fox tracks at the moment, I still love a “visual” confirmation. And below, a fluffy fox butt seen by our trail camera a couple of days ago. Pictured/not pictured: the callus ridge.