Shortly after a warm spell that melted the remaining snow, there fell a thin layer of new snow on Twin Cities' ground.
Now, hunters in the north woods already know that a thin layer of snow is great for tracking animals. But animal tracking is not something a suburban family expects to do when they walk out their front door.
My brother, Don, encountered footprints in the snow next to his Eagan doorstep April 7. He captured them with the digital camera he got for Christmas from his daughters and e-mailed them to me and to our parents for identification. Don's a bright guy and even thought to include a ruler in the photo for sizing.
The three toes and long "heel" told me right away that the owner of the print must be a bird. A quick look in "A Guide to Nature in Winter" by Donald Stokes and I found an identical match measuring the same 2+ inches. "Looks like a grouse," I proclaimed in another e-mail note.
Admittedly, a front door step in a well-populated suburb like Eagan seemed an unlikely place to find a grouse, but the pictures didn't lie.
Mom and Dad quickly replied, "It must be a mallard. They've seen them around."
Well, I hadn't had any information to go on besides the prints themselves. But before I could do any research on duck footprints, Don sent an image by e-mail that he found on the DNR Web site. It was a drawing of mallard prints from a match-up quiz in a "Ranger Rick" magazine. Sure enough, the prints looked like the grouse prints except for the distinct lines connecting the toes -- like one would expect on web-footed waterfowl.
This made a lot more sense. I remember seeing mallards everywhere when I lived in Apple Valley. Of course, they came to ponds and bird feeders like they do here in the lakes area. They also strolled along the roads' gravel shoulders and even crossed busy highways. I remember seeing one pair nesting in a patch of bushes in an elevated planter situated between some benches on a cement walkway in front of a movie theater.
Don and Sue, his wife, have seen mallards in the yard since the photos were taken. Maybe they're checking out the neighborhood to see whether it's suitable for raising a family. I wouldn't be surprised to hear some day in May that a mallard hen walked through their yard with 10 little ones following behind. I'm really hoping, though, that they won't be leaving footprints in the snow!
(Diane McCormack is a correspondent for The Brainerd Dispatch and a freelance writer living in north central Minnesota. Comments and story ideas are welcome by e-mail to email@example.com or call 821-5297.)
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