DEER TRACK IDENTIFICATION
There’s no sure-fire indication of a deer’s sex in its tracks. But if you take a close look, you will find some clues. It happens all the time: a hunter looks at a deer track that’s a little bigger than the ones around it and says, “Now, there’s a nice buck.” Well, not necessarily. The size of a deer’s track is not a very reliable indication of the animal’s sex. A deer’s hooves continue to grow throughout its life and are worn down by contact with the ground. An old doe may leave a larger track than a middle-age buck. And a doe that spends most of her time on soft soil may leave a larger track than a same-age buck that lives over hard, rocky soil. Still, if you find a track that’s huge compared to others in the same area, it’s probably worth your attention. It may belong to an old doe, but if it belongs to a buck, it’s probably a good buck.
Also, keep in mind that old tracks often appear misleadingly large. Fresh tracks have sharp, distinct edges, while old tracks show edges that are dull and vague. Splayed tracks are those in which the individual toes point outward, creating a “V” shape, with the tips of the toes at the open end. Although doe tracks are sometimes splayed, those of bucks tend to be splayed more often and more widely. A deer’s dewclaws register as two small round prints behind the main track. In many cases, dewclaw prints indicate only that the deer was sinking in soft earth, such as mud or sand. But those seen in tracks made on relatively firm soil-especially when the tracks of other deer on the same soil lack dewclaw prints-tell of a heavy deer, perhaps a buck.
Almost as good as antlers are drag marks; bucks tend to drag their feet when walking, while does pick theirs up daintily and cleanly. Drag marks are most easily seen and most reliable on a light blanket of snow, registering as long, narrow troughs cut in the snow between individual hoofprints. In deeper snow, however, does may leave drag marks as well. Offset tracks are typically made by does.
When walking, deer set their hind hoof in the same track (or slightly in front of the same track) as that of the front hoof, so in many cases, what looks like one track is actually two. Whenever two overlapping tracks are slightly offset, it’s a good bet that the deer that made them was a doe, because a doe is a bit wider at the hips than a buck. Also very small tracks right next to larger ones are typically made by the doe’s fawn. The best indication of a buck is when several of these clues come together in the same track. For example, a large, splayed hoofprint showing dewclaws on relatively firm ground is a good sign that you’re on the heels of a buck. Add a blanket of light snow and some drag marks to that track, and you should be ready to see antlers.