If you look closely, you will see signs of life all around you in the wild. Animal prints dot the ground you walk on and reveal a lot of information about the wildlife that can be found in the area. Many wild animals are shy, hidden, and anti-social, so sometimes the tracks they leave behind are the only indication that they are in the area. Animal tracks, also known as animal footprints, pugmarks, traces, spoor, and impressions, are a powerful tool for learning about the wildlife around you. With just a little guidance and know-how, you can become an animal tracker and enter a world otherwise hidden to a casual observer.
• There are three times of day that are ideal for tracking animals: early morning, late afternoon, and early evening. The tracks are more visible during these times because the slant of the sunlight makes it easier to see shadows made by the tracks.
• Make your starting point one where you can clearly see tracks, such as in freshly fallen snow or mud. From this point, you should easily be able to follow tracks until they become harder to see.
• When you’re following the tracks, take note of where the animal may have stopped, climbed a tree, or started running or flying. Try to understand what might have caused the animal to do this. Crouch down next to the prints to examine them up close so that you can see pressure marks in the prints.
• Just like people, most animals are creatures of habit! They generally traverse the same trails and make a habit of traveling down the same paths day in and day out. Look for patterns in the tracks you see that alert you to what animal might live nearby and travel back and forth regularly.
• Don’t just use your sense of sight to track animals. Use your sense of touch as well. Experienced animal trackers use their hands as much as their eyes to track animals. Feel the animal’s prints and the surrounding ground with your hands until you find more prints or clues. Follow what you find and see where it takes you.
Interpreting Animal Clues
Animal highways: Animal highways, or trails, are paths made by animals in forests, meadows, and other natural environments. They are used by many different animals to get from one spot to another.
Animal runs: These paths connect the trails to places where animals find food, water, and shelter. Animal runs are smaller than trails and are usually used by only one or two different species.
Animal beds: Just like a bed for you and me, this is a cozy, flattened area where animals sleep and rest. You may find what looks like a nest, a burrow, or a bed of needles or leaves with feathers or fur surrounding it.
Identifying What Animals You’ve Found
Like a fingerprint, every animal’s track is distinct. If you know what to look for, you’ll be able to tell what type of animal might be nearby. When you look at a footprint, pay attention to these following factors:
Size: By the size of the print, you should be able to tell whether it was left by a small animal, like a cat or mouse, or by a larger animal, like a bear or deer.
Number of toes: Since different animals have different numbers of toes, this is very helpful in figuring out what kind of animal left the print.
Are nail prints visible?: Feline prints don’t have nail marks, but prints left by wolves, raccoons, and bears have long, visible claw marks.
Does the print show an opposable toe (or thumb)?: Opposable toes or thumbs help creatures climb trees. If a track is showing an opposable digit, then it’s likely a tree-climber, like a raccoon or an opossum.
Are the front and back prints the same size?: Many animals, such as dogs, cats, foxes, and bears have front and back feet that are exactly the same size.
Are prints left by a hoofed animal?: Deer, moose, elk, and other hoofed animals leave prints that are very different looking than animals with paws.
You can determine an animal’s gait by interpreting the track pattern. Since different animal families have different gaits, examining the track pattern can help you figure out what type of animal tracks you’re seeing.
Diagonal walker pattern: Diagonal walkers, such as felines, canines, and hoofed animals, lift the front and hind legs on opposite sides at the same time. They leave behind staggered tracks.
Pacer pattern: Wide-bodied animals like bears, beavers, opossums, and raccoons lift the front and hind legs on the same side of the body at the same time.
Bounder pattern: Weasels, ferrets, and badgers hop so that their front feet land first and their back feet land next. The prints from their back feet land just behind their front prints.
Galloper pattern: Rabbits and hares gallop when they move. They jump so that their front feet land first and their back feet land in front and to the side of where the front feet landed.
Hoppers vs. walkers: Birds that hop have prints that land adjacent to each other. Birds that walk have offset prints, like those a human makes. Hopping birds generally live and feed in trees or in the air, and walking birds generally live closer to the ground and feed on ground-dwelling insects or animals.
Animal Tracks Identification
Felines: (house cat, bobcat, lynx, cougar), rounded print with four toes; no visible claws.
Canines: (dog, fox, wolf, coyote), rounded print with four toes and visible claw marks.
Weasel family: (weasels, minks, skunks, otters, badgers), five toes with visible claw marks.
Raccoons, opossums, and bears: 5 toes with visible claw marks; flat, human-like feet; some have opposable digits for climbing.
Rodents: (mice, squirrels, rats, voles, chipmunks, porcupines, gophers, beavers), four toes on the front prints and five toes on the rear prints (with the exception of beavers, which have five and five).
Rabbits and hares: Four toes on each print; back feet are twice the size of front feet.
Hoofed animals: (deer, moose, elk), cloven hooves on each foot.
Birds: Three toes; birds of prey have strong back claw; water birds have webbed feet.
Finally, consult a field guide book. Compare the notes you gathered about the particular prints and tracks you saw with the information in your field guide to see if you find any matches. And carry your field guide book with you when you go exploring so that you have it on hand when you come upon some tracks or prints. It’ll help you determine the type of creature in the woods you’ve come upon.