Finding Animal Tracks and Other Signs
Animal-tracking is a lot like detective work: you must know where to look and take note of the details. There's no point in searching for tracks on rocks, which are too hard for animal tracks to be preserved, and even in places where tracks are clearly visible, signs such as disturbed leaf litter or scratches on the bark of a tree can be just as useful but easy to overlook.
Get a free regional zip guide to Mammal Tracks in your area!
Mud, sand, dust, and snow are all surfaces on which you're likely to find the impressions left by animal footprints. Mud along the bank of a stream or pond or around a puddle in an old dirt road is perhaps the best place to look for tracks. Mud is often present in only small areas, but it records tracks in delicate detail. Most animals must go to water to drink, and many species, such as the Common Raccoon and the Mink, seek their food in watery places. Still other animals like muskrats and beavers are aquatic creatures that leave tracks wherever they come ashore.
In drier spots, dust and sand provide surfaces where tracks can be found. If the dust or sand is very loose, the tracks may cave in, leaving little detail, but the pattern of the tracks, and a knowledge of which animals live in the area, can help you sort out the tracks. Firmer dust or sand can contain tracks as finely preserved as those in mud. Look along the edges of roads and paths in the desert or on the plains or in dry streambeds.
Snow is an excellent place to look for tracks. Although the quality of the tracks varies with the texture of the snow--fine, somewhat moist snow is best--you can often follow trails for long distances, observing what the animal was doing. Perhaps it was searching for food or fleeing from a predator. Sometimes you can find the tracks of more than one animal--perhaps two of the same kind or the trails of a predator and its prey. Snow provides an ideal medium for studying the trails of different species, from the dainty, straight path left by a fox on the prowl to the irregular, ambling path of a foraging skunk.
Time of Day
Although you can find tracks at any hour of the day, the best time to look for them is early in the morning before anything has disturbed them. Many species are most active at dawn and dusk, and if you go early enough, and move slowly and quietly, you may see the animal that made the tracks. You may even be able to follow the trail of the animal and observe it. The best way to identify a track, after all, is to see for yourself the animal that made it.
Signs other than tracks often require attention to detail. Did that acorn just fall from the tree, or did some animal put it there? Was that patch of flattened grass left by a resting deer? What animal left that pile of pinecone scales on a log or at the base of a tree? Many animals--skunks, the Virginia Opossum, squirrels, and armadillos--root around in leaf litter or soft soil in search of food. Study the leaf litter on the forest floor. If it's been disrupted, you know that a living creature has done the disrupting. Other animals, among them bears, wild cats, squirrels, and porcupines, may scratch or gnaw the bark of trees, leaving telltale signs of their presence. Many mammals, including skunks, Mink, River Otters, foxes, and even squirrels, leave their droppings on logs, rocks, or stone walls. And many animals have distinctive burrows. A few of them, including moles, pocket gophers, pika, and jumping mice, seldom leave tracks but often leave signs that are equally telling: earthen tunnels, small clusters of clipped grass stems, and so on.
Identifying Animal Tracks
Once you've found some tracks, whether they're in mud, dust, sand, or snow, try to find the best individual track the animal left behind. Look for both front and hind prints; hind prints are usually smaller. It's a good idea to make a quick sketch of the best tracks, which not only provides a record of them but also focuses your attention on the small details that might otherwise be overlooked.
Track Identification Tips
- Examine as many prints as you can find to determine which are "typical." Learn to recognize prints that overlay one another, which can give the impression of extra toes and exaggerated size.
- Get as close to the print as possible so you don't miss any fine details.
- When identifying a track, it's important to take note of the following points:
- number of toes on each foot;
- size (if you are not carrying a ruler, measure against your finger or some other
- object that can be measured later);
- arrangement and shape of pads;
- "trail" characteristics (the arrangement and spacing of the prints).
- Keep in mind that many animals walk in such a way that their hind prints appear ahead of their fore prints.
If the animal left a trail, follow it and note whether it's straight or crooked, purposeful or meandering. Was the animal in a hurry, as if fleeing from a predator, or was it moving slowly, perhaps peacefully searching for food? The trails of arboreal animals often lead from one tree to another, while those of small rodents and weasels often hug logs or stone walls, commonly appearing across openings in such walls. See if you can deduce anything about the behavior of the animal from the tracks or the trail it left behind.
Watch for other signs--uneaten food, gnawed branches or clipped twigs, droppings, evidence of an encounter between predator and prey or that there was more than one individual present. Look for nests. The tree nests of squirrels, the lodges of beavers and muskrats or the burrows of chipmunks or Woodchucks will tell you right away that these animals are present and may well be the ones that left the tracks you found. While many mammals are nocturnal, others are diurnal or active in the early morning, so look for the animal itself. It may be watching you while you study its tracks.
Finally, take note of the habitat. A knowledge of habitat can eliminate many possibilities and confirm an identification. You'll seldom find a muskrat far from water or a porcupine far from trees.