September 2022 Natural Mystery Answered

Our September Natural Mystery was one of the highlights of the September Track & Sign evaluation. Although the track was perfectly clear and typical in every way, the track maker is uncommon enough in the Metro Area to challenge even our most experienced trackers. It looks like it may have been tricky for many of you as well, as we did not receive any correct answers this month. In place of sharing community responses, I'll share my own process and identification.

This is the track of a Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus). Let's examine the print more closely and see how we can have confidence in this.

We can begin by identifying this as a "game bird" track--a track that shows three straight, forward facing toes, and a reduced hallux. Game bird tracks can be further divided into two sub-groups: tracks that show smooth toes, and those that show clearly segmented toes. Wading shorebirds and cranes and their relatives leave game bird tracks with smooth toes. Upland game birds leave game bird tracks with segmented toes. This is the track of an upland game bird.

There are only a few upland game birds for us to consider. A full list includes turkeys, pheasants, domestic chickens, prairie chickens, grouse, bobwhite, quail and ptarmigan. Even without considering habitat and range, we can quickly rule out grouse, bobwhite, quail and ptarmigan based on size. Our track measures 2 3/4" long not including the hallux, which is excluded in measurements of game bird tracks. This is well outside the published ranges for grouse and quail. Bobwhite and ptarmigan are similar in size to quail, and we can expect them to leave similarly sized tracks of 2" or less. That leaves us with just four candidates to consider: turkey, pheasant, domestic chicken and prairie chicken.

We don't have any information in the tracking literature about prairie chicken tracks--in part because these birds are uncommon, even within their typical range. Given their size compared to other upland game birds, we might expect their tracks to be a bit smaller than this. But there are no records of prairie chickens in the Metro area. The closest sighting listed on eBird was 65 miles to the southeast, near Wabasha, MN. And that was in 1939.

We also lack information about domestic chicken tracks in our tracking literature, and these birds do sometimes escape from backyard coops in the cities. I have seen a chicken wandering near the Old Cedar Ave Bridge, just a few miles from Ft. Snelling, and saw another foraging on a roadside in Egan just a couple weeks ago. It would be useful for the tracking community to gather data on domestic chicken tracks--a task which should not prove especially challenging given their popularity as urban livestock. In the meantime, I can share from my limited experience that domestic chicken seem to have the same track morphology as turkeys, and slightly different than pheasants.  I'll get to that below.

Turkey tracks are generally larger than this. Elbrock lists the lower end of the range as 3 3/4". I have measured tracks as small as 3 3/8". Our track is considerably smaller than that, but these measurements are for adults, and we could also consider a poutl. September is quite late to have turkeys this small running around, and these tracks were found by themselves with no evidence of a hen or other poults nearby. We can also look closely at the track morphology.

Turkeys, even small ones, have more robust toes and wider nails than pheasants do. A trait the larger bird appears to share with domestic chickens. Take a look at the side-by-side comparison below. I have scaled a turkey track down to match the length of our Natural Mystery. This was a small, female turkey track, measuring just 3 5/8" long. The image is scaled down 25% for comparison. The differences between the two tracks may appear subtle at first, especially because our Mystery track is sunk deeper into a soft substrate, slightly exaggerating the width of the toes. But if you look closely, I think you will notice the proportionally wider toes and claws, as well as the proportionally longer hallux.

Natural Mystery

Wild Turkey track scaled down

Now let's compare our Mystery print to the illustration of a Ring-necked Pheasant track that was our featured track from the June newsletter. Here again, note the  relatively slender toes and narrower claws of the pheasant track. Remember that our mystery track is sunk deep into a soft substrate. Also note the slight curve of toe 4. Not all pheasant tracks show a curve to the toes, but I can't recall seeing this trait in turkey tracks. Note that in this case, the photo and the illustration are shown at exactly the same scale.

Natural Mystery

Ring-necked Pheasant track illustration

The resemblance is near perfect. The size is also a match. Pheasant tracks range from 2" - 3", so this print is toward the larger end. Our Natural Mystery is indeed the track of a Ring-necked pheasant, probably a male.

What made the identification difficult for participants in the Evaluation was not the clarity of the track, but how rare these birds are in and around Ft. Snelling. While they are rare, their are occasional sightings. A search on eBird within a few miles of Fort Snelling shows dozens of observations, including several observations from this September. It appears that there was indeed a pheasant moving through the Minnesota river valley around this time.

Our track sighting appears to be the only record of this bird within Fort Snelling State Park. Sometimes trackers are the only ones who know that a particular species of animal has passed through an area. That may have been the case here.

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