As a kid I was always fascinated by the Indian scouts on the old-time Westerns that squatted down, looked at some tracks in the dirt, and determined, "They went that away!" The same goes for those trappers in buckskin clothes and coonskin caps that could follow a trail of two-day old mountain lion tracks and ultimately find their way to the cat.
I never lost that interest in tracking nor the admiration for those who could do it well. Fortunately for me, I’ve managed to land myself in a job where I regularly get to hone my own wildlife tracking skills as well as teach this disappearing art to others.
To many, wildlife "tracking" implies just following an animal’s footprints. I prefer the more inclusive old-timer references to "cutting sign" or "reading sign" whereby tracks, scat (poop), dens and nests, feeding signs, etc. are all studied to tell an animal’s story. An effective tracker has to have a good imagination and be a pretty good storyteller in addition to just being able to identify what animal made that track.
"A cottontail was sitting here chewing on that dandelion until a coyote came along, pounced, and carried him away," makes for a much more interesting tale than "That’s a cottontail track." Honestly, reading sign is sort of like Wildlife C.S.I.
There’s a couple of keys to putting all of the pieces of the "crime scene" together. Obviously, being able to differentiate one wildlife species’ tracks from another is critical to the story line.
Which animals have five toes? Which have four toes? Which have five, but only four show up consistently in tracks? What is the overall size and shape of the foot? Does the animal leave a tail drag? How does it move—does it walk, hop, bound, or lope?
Answering questions like these can help identify the critter. Fortunately, there are some great books and field guides out there that can help teach you what to look for in each species. Most of my favorites are by master tracker and instructor Mark Elbroch, but there are many other good ones as well. There are even some smartphone apps (iTrack is by far my favorite) that can save you from having to lug around a bunch of books when you head out to the field.
After determining what animal’s tracks you are looking at, then you can work on figuring out what the animal was doing when it left the tracks or sign.
Was it in a hurry or just walking along? What was it eating? Where was it going? Is that a regular den or just a one-time resting spot? How long ago did the animal pass through here?
Then comes the fun part — time to ask the question "why." This is where the imagination kicks in and the tracker gets to think like the animal. This is also the point where having some knowledge of the biology and behavior of an animal species can help answer some questions and weave the story line. I’m not talking about book learnin’ biology, either. Most of the best trackers I’ve ever known are just folks who spend a lot of time out in the woods and/or in the deer blind watching animals do what they do.
As with many skills, practice is one of the main things that makes you a good tracker. In many cases, once you’ve seen a particularly unusual track or sign, you will never forget it.
I remember a question during a tracking field test in California that had the entire group stumped — except for one tracker. Evaluators had drawn a large circle in the dirt around a jumble of bobcat tracks, deer tracks, and regularly occurring "swoosh" marks. Our question was, "What happened here?"
Long story short, we all offered up our theories on what the strange marks were caused by, but all but one of us was wrong. The "enlightened" tracker ultimately told us that the swoosh marks were caused by a wing dragging in the sand from a large bird that was carried by a bobcat.
Sure enough, when you knew what you were looking at all the marks made perfect sense.
How did the tracker know what it was? He had seen it before in the snow in New Hampshire and never forgot.
Practice is key, but being a good observer is important too. Look for patterns and anything out of the ordinary. Look hard at the details, as sometimes it’s the littlest things that tell you the most important things.
Look not only at what’s there (the print itself), but also at what’s not there (the negative space between the toes and in between the toes and pad of the foot).
Don’t just look at one track, but instead follow the trail as far forward and backward as you can. Not only will this help you identify the animal, but it will also give you a look into the animal’s behavior.
Try to get out in the woods with folks you consider to be good trackers. As with many skills, you can learn some things from a book, but a good outdoorsman and teacher helps you to grow exponentially as a tracker.
Part of the beauty of tracking is that it can be done nearly anywhere anytime. Of course, checking out a mud flat after a good rain is a great place to start.
Mud is good because it picks up and holds a lot of detail that you might not otherwise see in loose soil. I love to see what’s been coming into our stock tank for a drink when the dry summer evaporates some water and leaves exposed mud on the sides of the pond.
Deep sandy areas are another place to go track hunting, although wind tends to erase the slate pretty quickly in sand.
My absolute favorite place to go track hunting, though, is under bridges. There’s always mud there, the tracks are typically protected from rain and wind, and it serves as a natural choke point for wildlife. Tons of wildlife species will head under bridges for shelter from the elements, and many more species can be found "just passin’ through."
I’ve seen otter tracks, beaver sign, plenty of feral hog tracks (always), alligator and turtle tracks, and plenty of coyote, bobcat, deer, and rodent tracks just to name a select few.
One final recommendation is to take a camera with you when you go. Not only can you use the photos to document your finds, but if you are stumped on identifying something, you can always take another look when you get home and are surrounded with books and the internet.
Folks regularly send us "biologist types" photos of tracks or sign that they have found for a little help with identification.
A couple of tips for taking track photos are:
1) Put something in the photo next to the track to give a sense of size. If you don’t have a tape measure, coins work great.
2) If possible, take photos both in the sun and with the track shaded. You would be amazed at how different light conditions can really make the details of a track stand out.
3) Take a couple of pictures of the same track from different angles. Once again, this can help you see things that you might otherwise miss.
No matter whether you have a camera or field guides or a teacher, just be sure to get outside and enjoy the wild outdoors. Whether or not you see the actual critters, I promise you they are out there.