Although most nature lovers observe wildlife close up or by using a pair of binoculars, many gain an even greater understanding of animal behaviour through the interpretation of tracks and signs. This is especially true of rare and nocturnal animals that are rarely seen.
Also, it’s a better way of understanding animal behaviour as wild animals, by their very nature, do not like coming into direct contact with humans as it causes them stress. Therefore, in tracking, once you’ve mastered the art of what to look out for, it allows you to gain information about wildlife by making observations from undisturbed, natural behaviour.
What Skills do all I Need?
Tracking requires keen senses, acute observation, physical fitness, patience, perseverance, concentration, alertness, a good memory, an analytical mind, a kinship with nature and a sense of creativity and imagination.
Where and When is the Best Time to go Tracking?
Animal tracks can be found in a variety of places – even in your own back garden, if you search hard enough. The kinds of terrain you are more likely to find animal tracks include desert areas or places where there’s sand, e.g. on a beach, along river banks, in pastures, in forests and woodland, near streams or any stretch of open water.
There’s no particular time where you won’t find any tracks but if you’re starting out, the easiest time to spot animal tracks is after heavy rainfall when the ground is wet and/or muddy and after it’s been snowing, so Autumn and Winter are often the best time.
Once you’ve discovered some animal footprints, you’ll never again pass a stream or river without instinctively looking to see what animal might have passed by that area before you.
How do I Know Which Animal has Passed Through?
There are numerous good books and websites that will teach you all about the art of tracking and most of them will be illustrated with the feet of a whole host of animals and birds so, as you become more of an expert, you’ll be able to quickly identify which animal has passed through in a similar fashion to the way bird watchers can identify birds at a distance.
But, for starters, firstly you should think about what kind of animals might live in the area in which you’re tracking. This will help to narrow down your field of identification. For example, if you’re in a park or forest with plenty of trees, squirrels will obviously be around somewhere. On open pastures, you’re quite likely to find rabbits or hares.
As a general rule of thumb, however, four toes on each of the front and hind feet means that you’re looking at a track from the dog, cat or rabbit family. It could be a dog itself or perhaps a fox, cat, rabbit or hare. If the paw print has small triangular marks in front of it, those are claw marks. So, depending on where you are, it could be a raccoon, skunk, fox or a dog. It won’t be anything from the cat family as they retract their claws when they run.
If the track has 5 toes each on the front and back feet, it’s from the raccoon and weasel family which includes badgers, beavers, porcupines, otters, mink and bears.
4 toes on the front foot and 5 on the rear means it’s a rodent, e.g. mice, chipmunks, rats, squirrels.
If you find a 2 toe track, it’s probably a deer or elk.
Then, ask yourself is the track made by a creature that hops. Squirrels leave interesting tracks because as they run, their larger hind feet land ahead of their smaller front feet and their front feet look as if they are side by side so that can be a giveaway. Rabbit tracks are pretty similar but their front feet are not found right next to each other so the distinguishing features of both prints means that you can tell if it’s a rabbit or squirrel.
However, buying an informative, well illustrated guide book to tracking is better than guesswork.
What Else I Can Tell From the Tracks?
As you become more adept at identifying footprints, you’ll soon be able to ‘read’ which direction the animal was heading. If the animal has claws, then it’s simple as the claw marks point to the direction in which they were heading. If there are no claws, look closer at the ground and you can often see where mud, dirt or snow has been pushed back by the animal’s feet. The pushed back area shows the direction the animal came from. All these kinds of skills are vital to tribes people who rely on hunting for their food but even here, where hunting is banned, it’s still a useful way to observe the behaviour of wildlife.
As you progress further, you can also learn to track animals by examining their scat (droppings) and by looking for scratches in the bark of trees or ground. You’ll also be able to tell the gender and age of an animal by its footprint and how long ago the animal passed by as you become more educated in the art of tracking.
So, head off to your local park or wood to see what you can find. Tracking is a great way to build up a picture of an animal’s behaviour and routine and you never know, you might even see the animal itself that matches the footprint.