Small Footprints in the Snow

Winter paths in Natural Areas Ottawa Ontario Wild Here

We were watching a nature program over the holiday season and someone commented that they didn't know that mice were active in the winter and it reminded me about how surprised I was when in ecology class, I learned that mice will eat the bark of young trees in the colder months and that they burrow around under the snow in subnivean tunnels.
subnivean (sʌbˈnɪvɪən): existing, living, or carried out underneath snow (link) from Latin: "under" (sub) + "snow" (nives)
It was amazing to learn about this winter activity that was happening just below the surface of what I could see.  With the blanket of the snow, the subnivean zone is well insulated; so when it's minus thirty with the wind blowing, those below at ground level, enjoy a mild temperature of around zero Celsius that stays that way all winter.  Also by being at ground level, these burrowing creatures such as mice and voles have access to a variety of food including mosses, lichen, seeds, plants and bark (as I mentioned before).  Just picture them winding their way through tunnels beneath grass and other leafy matter, with a snow cap top above them, following the scent of a variety of food.

These small creatures are drawn to the young tender sapling bark and this is why when planting new trees in urban and suburban areas you will see plastic spiral wraps or tree trunk guards placed around the bottom of the trunk.  In wilder areas, mice and voles would have a large selection to choose from as saplings pop up from various tree seeds planted by squirrels.  This could be another reason that trees produce so many seeds, so that some among them would survive all these various predatory animals that can eat seeds, bark and tender shoots while the new tree is developing.

Wild Here Animal Tracks in Snow Deer Mouse

A walk after the holidays provided us with a close up of mice tracks as they do visit above the snow level to cover longer distances from time to time.  In Ontario, the three tracks you are most likely to see in the winter are deer mice, white-footed mice and meadow voles.  (Jumping mice are true hibernators.) The mice tracks are easy to distinguish from a vole's due to the bounding pattern (feet are side by side rather than alternate) and the consistent "tail drag" as mice have longer tails than voles.  But don't expect to see many actual mice and voles as these are nocturnal creatures!

- Note the bounding pattern and tail drag in snow - 

So next time you are out along a trail through a meadow or near the woods, slow down and see if you can spot any of these small tracks.  It's amazing to think what is happening even while it looks like the winter fauna has all retreated from the cold weather.  And share with us what you are spotting outside at this time of year!  Are the squirrels active, are there birds visiting a nearby bird feeder or have you spotted some interesting tracks?

Enjoy adding a little wild to your week!

p.s. Voles are also known as "field mice" just to make things more confusing!  :  (

Bare Sumac Trees Silhouetted by Sunset


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