DIY: How to track in the wild

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Bird tracks!Identifying wildlife tracks can be a great hobby for all seasons.  Tracking is also a necessary skill for any serious outdoors person.  Being able to identify wildlife tracks will help keep not only you, but also the wild animals, safe.  For example, let’s say you are out hiking one fine spring day and you cross the tracks left by some rather large woodland creature.  There are now two options open to you.  Option one: you know little or nothing about identifying tracks so you continue happily along the trail.  Option two: you are able to identify the tracks and find them to be the tracks of one large and one small black bear.  So, you decide on an alternate hiking route, as you would rather not disturb a protective mother bear and her cub.

Get started

Learning how to track takes many hours of practice and a good field guide.  Wildlife tracks can be found anytime of the year, but winter and spring are great seasons for tracking.  Mud and snow make excellent canvasses for animal footprints.  Also, search for tracks near water.  Ponds, lakes and streams not only attract a greater number of animals, but the soil surrounding the area is often wet and good for finding well defined prints.  Before you head out into the woods, find yourself a good field guide.  Be sure to use a guide that is written with the locale your visiting in mind.  Field guides for North America work fine.  Just don’t pick up a guide to tracking tundra wildlife if you live in Tucson, AZ.

The very first step to becoming an excellent tracker is to understand local wildlife.  When you are out hiking pay attention to what animals you see and where you see them.  Use existing local knowledge (US Forest Service, your library, US Fish and Wildlife Service, long time residents, etc.) to research species found in your area and their normal behavior and habitat.  Habitat is the area that provides food, shelter and safety to a given animal species.  I live in the rural mountains of Washington State and it would be silly of me to spend my time deciding if a track belonged to a raccoon or an opossum.  There aren’t opossums within 300 miles of my home.  On the other hand, I should know that both white-tailed deer and mule deer live in my area, but distinguishing between their tracks is nearly impossible.  I do know that mule deer habitat is generally open, grassy hillsides at higher elevations while whitetails tend to live near valley bottoms and in densely forested areas.  Knowledge of your area and its wildlife are key to identifying tracks.

Now that you are at least somewhat familiar with the wildlife found in your region, it is time to begin track identification.  The best way to begin this is to become familiar with the large animal groups.  I group animal tracks into seven major categories: two-toed ungulates (deer, elk, moose), canine family (domestic dog, coyote, wolf), feline family (domestic cat, cougar, bobcat), rodents (chipmunk, squirrel, prairie dogs), rabbits, bears and birds.  Being able to distinguish between these seven groups will be an immense help to you on your outdoor adventures.

Ungulates

Ungulates are found, in one form or another, all across North America.  Deer are the most common big game species in the United States and in some states population control has become necessary.  Any woodswoman worth her salt should be able to identify an ungulate track from a mile away.  Ungulates are herbivores, so their habitat is centered around a stable supply of plant matter.  Ungulate tracks, as shown in the picture, consist of two-toed hoofs, each hoof looking somewhat like a crescent moon.  Ungulates also have two smaller toes, one behind each hoof, called dewclaws.  Dewclaws do not normally appear in the track unless the track is made in deep snow or mud.  Ungulates also walk in a distinct alternating track pattern (as seen in photo).

Dogs and cats

Bear in mind that this group includes potentially dangerous animals such as coyotes and cougars.  Canine and feline tracks can, at times, be next to impossible to tell apart.  Both groups walk in an alternating track pattern and tracks have a round appearance overall.  Both cat and dog tracks have one large heel pad surrounded by four toe pads.  The major identifying factor between the two families is that dogs walk with their claws extended and cats do not.  Therefore, dog tracks have distinct claw marks directly above the toe pads, while claw marks are absent in cat tracks.  If you are tracking in the snow it is also a general rule that cats pick up their feet so that only paw marks are visible. Dogs, however, tend to drag their feet along the top of the snow leaving scuffmarks behind each paw print.

Rodents

Rodents are a diverse group of species, adapting themselves to all varieties of climate and habitat.  Rodents vary from the large North American beaver to the miniscule field mouse.  Tracks therefore, also vary widely.  Most rodents travel in a “jumping” pattern, leaving tracks in small groups of four.  Some larger rodents, such as beaver and lemmings, walk rather than jump and will leave alternate tracks.  In general, the best description of rodent prints is that they resemble tiny human hand and footprints.  Claws and toes are clearly visible.

Rabbits

Rabbits also leave a “jumping” track pattern, which results in groups of four prints.  Rabbits are herbivores and are most active during the hours near dawn and dusk.  If there are a large number of rabbits in an area, grass will be eaten down close to the ground and the lower branches of shrubs will be eaten also.  Rabbit tracks are easily distinguishable because of the large, long hind feet.  However, when looking at a track, the hind feet appear to be in front of the small, round front feet.  The front feet prints are almost identical to a cat’s print, having one heel pad and four surrounding toe pads without visible claws.

Bears

In many parts of the northern United States it is crucial to know what a bear track looks like and to be able to distinguish between a Black bear (Ursus americanus) and a Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis).  Black bears walk in a slightly pigeon-toed alternating pattern.  Each print consists of one large (4 – 5.5 inch) heel pad and five smaller toe pads.  Claws are slightly visible.  Grizzly bears also walk in an alternating pigeon-toed pattern with claws visible.  However, grizzly claws are extended up to two inches, verses the mere centimeters of a black bear.  A grizzly bear track is also much bigger than a black bear track.  Black bear tracks are six to seven inches in length while grizzly bear prints are ten to sixteen inches long.  Another good way to distinguish between the two bear tracks is to look at the area between the heel pad and the toe pads.  If you can draw a perfectly straight line through the empty space, without crossing a pad, then the track is most likely grizzly.

Birds

Birds are easy.  All birds have three long toes, attached at the base.  Aquatic birds also have webbed feet.  The prints are often diamond-shaped and follow a “hopping or jumping” pattern.  Bird trails may become confusing due to abrupt endings where the bird has flown.

Tracking can be a useful skill for a variety of reasons.  Following trails can teach you an incredible amount about a given animal species and how that animal spends its time.  And understanding animal behavior is essential to understanding your outdoor surroundings, keeping safe on hikes or other excursions and for successful hunting.