There was a time when being able to effectively identify and follow tracks of animals was a critical skill for survival. Knowing which animals were in the area and learning their habits through the evidence they left behind could mean the difference between life and death – setting traps in areas where prey animals were abundant and avoiding areas that were home to animals that could hunt and kill you. This ancient art has since declined in our fast-paced, urban environment where we are increasingly reliant on others to do the hunting and gathering for us and the local grocery store is the furthest we have to travel to acquire almost any food imaginable. Some foods travel thousands of kilometers, coming from as far as the other side of the world. Many meats are “grown” and harvested in factory-like farms and shipped long distances before they are purchased and consumed. The food systems we now have in place seem to make the entire notion of tracking animals obsolete and irrelevant in today’s technologically advanced environment.
Possessing the skill to decipher the evidence animals leave behind in their travels offers you so much more than the ability to hunt effectively. Tracking gets you outdoors, gives you knowledge, exercise, patience and a whole manner of other practical skills. Tracking an animal gives the tracker a view into the animal’s life that is unavailable to most who pass by tracks unaware of the stories that they can tell. There are many stories written on the Earth’s surface; some are easily read, while others never reveal their mysteries. Some tracks last for weeks or even months, while others disappear moments after they are made.
Tracking can shape the very way you view the landscape and ultimately the world you inhabit. Tracks are everywhere. Often the problem is not that there aren’t enough tracks, but that there are too many! Tracking can be divided into two basic categories:
1) Tracks – which are the footprints left by the animal that made them, and
2) Signs – which include anything other than a track that tells you something about the animal that made it.
Tracking is not limited to animals. The Oak Ridges Moraine is a sign that was left behind by a glacier that retreated about 10,000 years ago – evidence left behind that something happened, an occurrence that you can decipher. Such is the nature of signs.
Viewing nature (or life) this way can be very interesting. Like a detective, when tracking you must have the curiosity of a young child – viewing everything with a brand new perspective, like seeing it for the first time. Continually ask yourself, “What happened here?” In this way, it is very refreshing. There is no “same old same old” because when tracking, there are no two signs or tracks that are alike. Each was made under slightly different circumstances resulting in a track or sign that is entirely unique and in a way, is a stand alone “individual”. Looking at tracks this way requires intense observation and reveals that they are in fact unique, which can unlock some mysteries about the individual track and the animal that made it.
It is important to carry this perspective with you when you are tracking, because that is what tracking is, an exercise in perspective. Tracking is a choice; you choose whether or not you want to raise your awareness to the many clues that surround you at any given moment.
Where to find tracks?
The issue isn’t so much where to find tracks and signs, as they are abundant and all around us. It is more where to look. For the purposes of this post, we will focus on mammal tracks of the non-human variety! When looking for tracks and signs, you will dramatically increase your sightings by doing the following:
Move your eyes. We humans typically look either straight ahead or at a 45 degree angle to the ground when walking. This method will not work well for finding animal tracks (especially at times of year where there is no snow). Look high into the trees for signs of animal presence. Cavities (holes in trees) are homes to owls, wood ducks, raccoons, woodpeckers and a host of other animals. Squirrel and bird nests are usually high off the ground as are claw marks, raccoon droppings and a variety of other signs.
Look low. Don’t be afraid to act like a kid and get down and dirty. Some of my most amazing finds have been when I was unafraid to get full of mud and grass stains by crawling on my hands and knees in pursuit of an elusive track. By looking low you can find animal dens (places they live), scat (animal droppings), rubs (places animals have come in contact with, removing some material like tree bark, trails (common walkways used by a variety of species), and a whole manner of other interesting things.
Use light to your advantage. Tracking in low-light conditions is best. When the sun is low on the horizon it casts deeper and darker shadows into the depressions left on the leaf litter and other difficult tracking substrates.
Put your ear to the ground. By turning your head sideways and putting your ear on the ground (and by default your eyes very close to the ground), you are able to see the more subtle tracks that will be overlooked while standing. This is done when you suspect or know that there is a track present but are having difficulty viewing it from the standing position.
Look small, very small. Look for minute things in the track like a small pebble that has shifted or a single hair caught on a fence that the animal went under. By doing this, you’ll see many things you otherwise would have passed by.
Look ahead. Sometimes we get so engrossed in finding the next track that we forget to look ahead. Looking ahead can give vital clues to finding the next track by looking at the layout of the tree branches and direction of the trail you are following.
Lift up things. By lifting up small brush piles, you may discover some rabbit or small rodent hair or scat. Lifting up the long, flattened grass in a field will often reveal an entire network of vole, mice and shrew runways. Be careful not to disturb wildlife, especially during times of year that they are raising their young.
Where to find animals
Most animals are afraid of humans. Their ability to camouflage, their super senses and their familiarity with the environment in which they live, all contribute to the difficulty in spotting them in their natural habitat. This is one reason why tracking is very effective. You may not see the animal but by the evidence it leaves behind, you can figure out what animals are present, what they are eating, where they are sleeping and some of their behaviours. Once this knowledge is acquired, quietly revisiting the area where evidence is found will increase your chances of seeing the animal that left it.
Transition Areas – also known as eco-tones – are places where one habitat type meets another one. A field meeting a forest, a forest meeting a wetland and a wetland meeting a field are all examples of transition areas. These places are abundant with prey species, and predators follow the prey. The sheer abundance of animals at transition areas increases your chances of viewing one there.
Dawn and Dusk – some animals are most active during the night (nocturnal), some are mostly active during the day (diurnal), and some are mostly active at dawn and dusk (crepuscular). Animals are active at different times because their prey may be active at those times or to reduce competition with other predators. Dawn and dusk are when the nocturnal animals are coming in from foraging, the diurnal animals are going out to forage and the crepuscular animals are actively foraging. This “shift change” makes for an ideal time of day to view a variety of different types of wildlife.
Poor Weather – like you, animals will seek shelter during a storm. There is no need to expose themselves to the elements during non-ideal conditions.
“It starts with an “S” and ends in a “T”,
It comes out of you, and it comes out of me;
I know what you’re thinking, but don’t call it that;
Be scientific, and call it SCAT!”
The above is a popular song used to introduce (older) students to the proper terminology when referring to animal droppings. Scat can change in texture, colour and overall appearance with the seasons as the diets of animals change based on food availability. As a general rule, carnivores tend to have scat that is dark in colour and many can have bits of bone and hair that are visible within the scat. Fox can have a skunk-like odour to their scat and urine, and weasel scat has a very dark colour (almost black) with a folded appearance. Look for scat of the dog family (foxes, coyotes and wolves) at prominent locations like trail junctions or atop a rock that stands out. This is one way they mark their territory. Herbivores usually have a pellet-like scat. Rabbit scat can appear very similar to the cereal Cocoa Puffs. You can trick your students on a field outing by pre-planting the Cocoa Puffs, showing them to your students, pretending it is rabbit scat and then eating the “scat”. The reaction you’ll get from your students, along with the memorable lesson, will outweigh the short-term deception (be sure to tell them the truth afterwards… obviously, no student should be eating or touching scat!). Deer scat consists of pellets that often are clumped together. Close examination reveals that many of the pellets have a pointed end to them.
Omnivore scat can vary greatly in size, shape and consistency because of the varied diet these animals eat. Therefore, a discussion of it is beyond the scope of this post. There are many great books available on animal tracking that have wonderful sketches and photographs of the different species prints, signs and scats. Safety note: Do not handle or get too close to scat, as some (like raccoon and bat) can carry diseases that can be transferred to humans.
Similar in appearance to some scat are pellets. Birds that eat meat will cough up a pellet containing all of the indigestible parts of the animals they eat; hair, feathers, bones, teeth, scales and claws can all be found in a pellet. Birds like hawks, owls, crows, jays, herons, kingfishers and some others will eject pellets like these. These pellets can tell a great deal about what the bird is eating. Often entire skeletons of the prey can be reassembled from owl pellets. Be warned that coyote scat can have some resemblance to a pellet, and you do not want to pick through coyote scat!
Chews, rubs and browse
On your tracking adventures you will come across many chews, rubs and browse. Sometimes you will find a skull or antler that, under close examination, has been chewed by something. This is commonly done by rodents who are getting calcium from the bone. The amount of chew marks on the bone may indicate how long it has been there. Vegetation is a great place to look for evidence of animals. If you spot some plants that have been chewed (often referred to as browse) look closely. If they are chewed off at a 45 degree angle and look as if they’ve been clipped by hedge clippers, then you are looking at rabbit or rodent browse. These animals have sharp incisors which give the sharply cut appearance. Be careful trying to determine the height of the animal by looking at the height of the browse though, because heavy snowfall can raise animals well beyond their regular height. Deer don’t have upper and lower incisors and as a result will grab a twig tightly and pull hard upward and to the side. This gives the browse a more broken appearance and a less sharply angled cut. Often one side of the break is longer than the other when looking at deer browse. Carnivores will sometimes chew on vegetation for vitamins and minerals. Because their teeth are not well suited for chewing on vegetation, the vegetation will have a masticated appearance full of tears and puncture marks. Examine the grass after your cat or dog has had a munch to get the idea of what this looks like. Sometimes, along a well-used animal trail, there will be an obstacle like a fence post or a log. As the animals pass by or over the obstacle they will rub it, this results in a smooth appearance often accompanied by claw marks.
Tracking can be linked to many activities in the classroom. Tracks can be measured and counted and the data can be graphed and analyzed. How many different animals did you find evidence of in the habitat? A good tracking guide will help you narrow down the type of animal you are tracking by using the measurements that you took.
You can also link tracking to the art curriculum by making plaster casts of detailed tracks and painting them. Students can also sketch a track or sign that they find on the trail. Photographing tracks can be great fun and used to catalogue the animals in a given area. Always include something in the photograph for scale.
If you find a mystery track or sign, why not have students write a story about what they imagine the creature who made it to be. These stories could also be acted out for the class.