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July 2019 Natural Mystery Answered

posted Aug 10, 2019, 4:10 PM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated Aug 10, 2019, 4:23 PM ]
Our July Natural Mystery came from Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, where we held our Summer Survey on July 13. You can read about the summer survey and what our teams found (which included more members of this species) here. Congratulations go out to regular contributors Jim Carretta, Kim Cabrera and Kirsten Welge who each identified both the species and which foot left this track.

As Jim Carretta succinctly notes, this track comes from a Sandhill crane, left foot.

Kim Cabrera adds a little more detail, noting that the only other track that is really close in appearance is that of a wild turkey. She then explains:

"Turkeys have tracks that approach this size, but their toes are shorter, particularly toes 2 and 4. The inner toe is shorter on both species, making this a left foot. The toes of the sandhill crane are more straight, without the sort of bulbous appearance of turkey toes. They look straight and slim compared to turkeys. The turkey's toes are sort of bumpy due to the musculature."

Kirsten Welge also notes the straighter toes of this track compared with turkey and adds a few additional details:

"What I see:
  • Game bird track form
  • Webbing visible between upper two toes (toes 3&4)
  • Length of 4.25”
  • Matches game bird morphology and size range (3 ¾”-5”). However:
  • Turkey tracks tend to show bulbous, segmented toes. This track has smooth toes.
  • Elbroch notes that turkeys have webbing between toes 2&3 and 3&4. This track only shows webbing between toes 3&4.
Sandhill Crane:
  • Matches game bird morphology and size range (3 ¾” -4 ¾”).
  • Tracks show smoother edges to the toes than turkey tracks.
  • Cranes only have webbing between toes 3&4 – which makes this a match for this track.

These are all good tips for distinguishing turkey from sandhill crane tracks. I'll add a just a little more to what these trackers shared.

First, several people wrote in their answers that the track does not show a hallux, but this is not correct. The claw of the hallux is visible in the photograph as a dot about ¾” behind and just to the outside of the metatarsal pad. Look very, very closely at the full resolution photo and you may see a hint of the tip of the toe registering as well. The narrow impression of the claw on toe 1, together with the narrow claw marks on each of the other toes, offers another clue that this is a crane track and not a turkey track. Turkey nails are broad and blunt, like "Lee Press On Nail," and are designed for scratching. The base of the nails are nearly as wide as the tips of the toes. Sandhill crane nails are much narrower. When the nails register clearly, there is a distinct narrowing between the tip of the toe to the shaft of the nail.

Finally, sandhill crane tend to spay their toes much wider than turkeys. Turkey tracks typically show a splay of a little over 90° between toes 2 & 4. Sandhill crane tracks sometimes splay nearly 180°, and almost always splay wider than turkey. In soft substrate such as loose sand, where we often find both turkey and sandhill crane tracks at Cedar Creek, I find the splay of the track to be one of the most useful traits for distinguishing these two species.

Thanks again to Jim, Kim & Kirsten for sharing your answers and insights. And thanks to everyone who wrote in and took a stab at this mystery.

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