As winter approaches, thoughts of snow tracking fill my mind. It’s a profound experience for me, and one of my great passions. When I’m not actually doing it, I enjoy writing about it. And, as I reviewed my archives, it occurred to me that I haven’t yet written about how to get started tracking animals. So here it is: tips, guidance, and resources for the beginner. You, too, can blaze a trail towards tracking expertise. As you will read below, it’s extremely helpful to attend tracking programs led by experienced trackers, so if you’re in the Northeastern US, check out our Winterberry Wildlife Tracking Programs. And to read about why tracking skills are so important, check out The Value of Animal Tracking Skills.
How to Get Started Tracking Animals: Tips and Resources
1. Set Modest Short Term Goals
There’s quite a lot to tracking, but you can make it more manageable by breaking it into chunks. Starting with mammals is easiest for most people, because their tracks are large, and because there is more information available on tracking mammals than other taxa. I found it easiest to learn 1 group of related mammals at a time. So, for example, you might choose to start with the dog family, weasel family, cat family, or deer family. After you gain experience with mammals, you might want to tackle birds, amphibians, reptiles, or insects.
2. Learn Track Identification
When most people think about tracking animals they think about, well, the tracks. Learning to identify tracks is a fine place to start, and when you are starting, there is no need to be picky. Search for tracks in any substrate – snow, mud, or sand. Study the tracks of your cat, dog, chickens, goats or horse, whatever you’ve got. Starting with your own animals allows you to compare the shape of their feet with their foot prints, and their tracks are conveniently located on your property. You’ll also see how their tracks vary in different substrates – e.g., wet mud vs. drier mud, and in shallow snow vs. deeper snow.
3. Learn Feeding Sign
As you become comfortable with tracking, you will begin to notice animal sign other than foot prints. You’ll find acorns, hickory nuts, and beech nuts opened, and their contents eaten. You’ll notice twigs eaten and bark gnawed or peeled. You will also find sign of carnivorous dining: the remains of a rabbit or a deer, for example. Many animals leave characteristic sign, whether they’ve been feeding on a plant or a carcass. Familiarize yourself with these characteristic signs at home, and take a field guide with you to look up what you don’t remember.
4. Learn Animal Scat
What goes in must come out…Well some of it is used for growth, but the rest is excreted. In general, there is a characteristic appearance to the scat (poop) of a given species, but it does vary with diet, just as your own does. Some general rules of thumb:
- Herbivores (rabbit, deer) tend to excrete discrete pellets, especially after feeding on dry vegetation. After feeding on lush vegetation, an herbivore’s scat might look like squished, soft pellets stuck together.
- Carnivores (bobcats, lynx) tend to excrete long, segmented scat, like those you see in your cat’s litter box. But because wild carnivores consume fresh, hunted game, fur and small bone fragments might appear in scat.
- Omnivores (raccoon, fox, coyote, black bear) tend to excrete long pieces of scat, but appearance varies greatly with diet. You might see remains of fruit, berries, seeds, or corn, depending on seasonal and regional availability. After consumption of animal prey, an omnivore’s scat is likely to show evidence of fur or bone fragments, but not necessarily. For example, a coyote might make a meal deer liver without consuming any fur or bone, in which case the scat won’t contain fur or bone.
- Scat diameter is more indicative of species than scat length. This makes sense when you think about it. An animal’s intestine is of a finite diameter. So, for example, the diameter of a red fox’s scat will virtually never exceed than 3/4 inch. However, its scat could be a couple of inches to several inches in length.
- It’s important to recognize raccoon scat, because it sometimes contains the spores of a parasite Balysascaris procyonid, which can cause disease in humans. The spores can be transmitted to you via the air and into your lungs, so do not pick apart raccoon scat, and do not put your face close to it.
5. Learn About Animal Urine
The urine of a given species tends to have a characteristic odor, but that, too, might vary by season. In winter, porcupines eat a lot of conifer leaves, twigs, and bark, and their urine has a pleasant, piney odor. Bobcat urine smells like house cat urine, and fox pee smells similar to skunk spray, though less potent.
When snow covers the ground, it’s easier to find the urine because you can see it. It’s okay to sniff it, but don’t touch it, because the urine of many mammals can carry Leptospira bacteria, which cause the disease Leptospirosis in humans. If you don’t feel comfortable sniffing it, note the color, which can also help determine species. Deer urine is often a deep orange-brown. Rabbit urine can be bright orange.
6. Study Trail Patterns
The trail pattern is the pattern of tracks an animal leaves behind. This is a huge topic, and one could write a lengthy post on just one trail pattern, let alone the overall topic. It’s also one of the most challenging aspects of tracking. Here, I will just give a few pointers to get you started:
- Learn the basic trail patterns (walk, trot, lope, gallop, bound, hop) and some of their variations from a tracking book. Study the pictures and store them away in your memory.
- Look for good substrate and long stretches of animal trails. This is harder than you might think. You don’t stumble upon the right texture and moisture level of snow, sand or mud everyday. Observe the trails carefully, take measurements, and try to imagine the animal’s mission. Where did it come from and where was it going? What was it doing?
- Identify front and hind feet. For some trail variations, it’s helpful to draw a line connecting sequential hind tracks and sequential front tracks.
- Factor the terrain into your interpretation. Some gaits produce a different trail pattern on a slope, as compared to flat ground.
7. Track in Any and All Conditions
Beginners love to track when the substrate will register crisp, clear tracks with lots of detail. And beginners need to do a lot of that, because they need to see a lot of detail to determine species. But as I’ve gained experience, I have found it helpful to track in as many different conditions as possible. Tracking in many different substrates and conditions forces you to learn the subtle distinguishing characteristics of a species’ tracks. Also, you’ll learn how an animal moves or behaves differently in different substrates. A bobcat often uses an overstep walk in very shallow snow, but prefers a direct register walk in deeper snow. In deep, soft snow, a fisher might create “snow dens”, which you don’t otherwise see.
8. Track in Large Expanses of Land
While I’ve learned a lot tracking on small pieces of conservation land in the suburbs, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the limitations. Animals do not recognize our property boundaries, and when their trails cross from conservation land into someone’s backyard, I cannot follow them. That seriously limits my ability to study trail patterns and interpret animal behavior. State wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges, for example, are usually much larger than town conservation properties, expanding the opportunities for tracking. Beaches and large sand pits can be good, too.
9. Record Your Findings for Future Reference
I have found it enormously helpful to record my findings and tuck them away for future reference. Here are three great ways to record your findings.
Photographing them is my method of choice because it is quick and easy. I try to keep them organized by species, so I can compare and contrast tracks of a given species in different substrates and under different conditions. I can also compare them to pictures in books. As I gain experience, I occasionally change my mind about a track ID or trail pattern, and that is usually an exciting “aha moment”.
Some people prefer to draw their findings, because it forces them to pay close attention to every little detail. The disadvantage is that it takes a lot longer than snapping a few photos.
A 3rd way to record your findings is to make plaster casts of tracks. Probably this best use of casts is for teaching purposes. Here’s a video that shows how to make the casts:
10. Study Animal Behavior
It will be easier (and more rewarding) to interpret tracks, trails, and other sign if you know something about the natural history of the species you are tracking. Does it tend to live in groups, or lead a solitary existence? What are its preferred habitats? What does it eat? Does its diet vary seasonally? When does it breed? Where does it den? Is the male involved in raising young? How long do offspring stay with mother? Where does it typically deposit it scat? Does it cover its scat? And so on.
11. Get a Game Camera
There’s nothing quite like seeing the animals to confirm (or disprove) your interpretation of tracks and sign. Get a trail camera that does videos with audio, not just still photos, so you can observe behaviors. To get started, see How to Set Up A Camera Trap.
12. Track Alone…and with Others
Tracking alone and tracking with others are 2 very different experiences, and I find both tremendously useful. Alone, I am more focused and attentive to the sights, sounds, and scents of nature. I move more slowly and think more deeply. I’m quieter, and therefore more likely to actually see animals.
On the other hand, tracking with others means there are more eyes to find things, and more perspectives on interpretation. And the wider the variety of people you track with, the better. Each person is an expert at something, however humble, and can contribute something useful to almost any discussion. This is because tracking is so many things at once: it’s ecology, weather, behavior, survival, evolution, life, death, art, and science. I recall a 9 year old girl who, against my better judgment, attended a tracking walk I led several years ago. As we walked among the rotting logs of the forest floor, she gave us a thorough explanation of the decay process and its importance to the forest biota. Remarkable, indeed.
13. Minimize Your Impact
If you’re into tracking, you probably appreciate wildlife and don’t wish to do them harm. Recognizing how you could harm them is the first step towards avoiding it. Here are some ways that trackers can inadvertently harm wildlife:
- Fore tracking (following fresh tracks in the direction of travel) can make an animal very anxious and cause it to flee from you, wasting time and energy that would be better spent on hunting, foraging, caring for young, etc. When you find fresh tracks, backtrack them instead. You will learn just as much, but without impacting the animal’s behavior.
- Spending time near an active den can make the occupants anxious, or a delay a parent’s return to feed hungry young. It can even cause them to abandon the den, wasting time and energy. Minimize your time near dens.
- Leaving a trail of your own tracks to a den or other sensitive area can be harmful. People can’t resist following other people’s trails. Try not to visit important wildlife areas when the substrate will clearly display your tracks for all to see.
14. Read Books on Animal Tracking and Related Topics
There are many, many excellent resources for trackers, and I am describing only my favorites here, books I own and frequently use for reference. I have read several of them cover to cover.
Tracking & the Art of Seeing, by Paul Rezendes. This is an excellent book for beginners. It covers the most essential information, and Rezendes’s beautiful photos and interesting tracking stories make it engaging and relatively easy to read. It has great photos of tracks, and to my knowledge, it’s the only tracking book with photos of the bottoms of the feet of most of the species covered. It also has a chapter on bird tracking, which, though far from exhaustive, provides an excellent starting point. The one short coming is that it lacks range maps, so you might want a field guide to mammals at your side for reference.
Mammal Tracks & Sign, by Mark Elbroch. Organized by type of finding (e.g., a chapter on tracks, a chapter on scat, another on dens, etc.), rather than by species, this encyclopedic book is an essential reference for the serious tracker. Compared to Rezendes’s book (above), it’s much more thorough, but, because of its organization, less readable. Most will use it for reference, but the obsessed tracker (such as those studying for the CyberTracker exam) will read it cover to cover. This book has range maps, which is wonderful.
Mammals of North America, by Fiona A. Reid. A great field guide with clear and accurate illustrations, and a concise summary of distinguishing features, habits, habitat, range map, etc., of each species. Handy to have at your side as you peruse tracking books, most of which lack range maps and/or info on animal behavior.
Bird Tracks & Sign, by Mark Elbroch and Eleanor Marks. This is another great resource which is organized by sign (chapter on tracks and trails, another on droppings, another on feathers, etc.) It has no pictures of the birds themselves, and no range maps, so you will need a field guide of birds, unless you’re an experienced birder. On the plus side, the chapter on tracks and trails is logically organized by type of tracks (classic, game bird, zygodactyl, etc.), which makes it easy to absorb the information.
Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates, by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney. There are so many insects that one book couldn’t possibly cover the tracks and sign of all of them, but if you know most of what is in this book you will know much more about insects than most trackers. The book is organized by sign (secretions, webs, cocoons, galls, etc.), without photos of most of the insects, so you might want an insect field guide by your side while reading this one. It’s well written and well organized, and more readable than Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks & Sign.
Tracks & Sign of Reptiles & Amphibians, by Filip Tkaczyk. If you’re primarily a snow tracker, you may never see much evidence of reptile or amphibian activity, but you will want to learn this material if you track in sand or mud. One of the many nice things about this book is the inclusion of photos of the feet of some species, which allows you to correlate anatomy with tracks. It also has range maps, excellent photos, and a cool section on shed snake skins.
Animal Skulls: A Guide to North American Species, by Mark Elbroch is a heavy tome with beautifully detailed drawings (and some photos) of skulls of mammals, from the tinniest to the largest. The distinguishing characteristics of each species are carefully documented to help you determine species when you find a skull out in the field.
Behavior of North American Mammals, by Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart. As your tracking experience grows, you will try to deduce animal behavior from the tracks and sign you see. Why did the bobcat spray that stump? Why did the bear bite the tree? This book takes up where the tracking books leave off, and helps you answer those questions.
15. Make Use of Wildlife Tracking Websites
Wildlife tracking websites abound. Obviously I post about tracking and other nature topics, so go ahead and check out my wildlife archives. Here are a couple of other sites with great information:
16. Attend Wildlife Tracking Programs
Learning from experienced trackers is an excellent way to develop your skills. In my opinion, it’s best to learn from a variety of different instructors, because each has his/her own style and knowledge base. I highly recommend programs led by CyberTracker certified instructors. If you live in the northeastern US, check out Winterberry Wildlife Tracking Programs, where my colleagues and I lead walks and give talks. For a map of programs with certified tracking instructors of the US and byond, see NatureTracking.