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January 20, 2012

Get Tracking! Wildlife Tracking Basics

Finding and following wildlife stories

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Raccoons' hand-shaped tracks are easily recognizable. WWFloyd

  • Making plaster casts of tracks in snow is more difficult than those in soil, but with practice it can be done. iStockphoto

Have you ever seen an animal footprint in the mud and wondered what animal made it, and what they were doing? Then you've got what it takes to be a wildlife tracker!

When many people think of wildlife tracking, they picture finding fresh tracks and following them to catch the animal. But the real joy in tracking lies in discovering as much as you can from the evidence that animals leave behind.

Take a look at your own backyard or local woods or fields. You might be amazed by what you find.  

Signs of wildlife activity

You can look not only for direct evidence, like paw prints and scat (animal droppings), but also indirect evidence, such as tooth marks, hair, and trails.

The more evidence you have, the easier it will be to get a positive ID on what critter made the tracks. Often, you can figure out what the animal was doing at the time the tracks were left. See our recommended guides and resources (or do a quick web search) to help you recognize the basic imprints or scats that animals in your area might leave. 

Make plaster casts

Bring your hobby home with you: create a collection of plaster tracking casts. It's easier than you think! Guidelines for making casts are offered in most tracking field guides; basically, it involves mixing a batter of water and plaster of paris and applying it into a set of tracks, then letting it dry before lifting it out. Local mud flats or river sandbars are good sites to practice making plaster casts.

Attract track-making critters to your yard »

Keep a journal

Consider keeping a journal, complete with photos or drawings, about the tracks you see in your backyard. You might be surprised by the number and variety of wild visitors.

Trek lightly

If you start tracking on public property, keep in mind a few etiquette rules when you go. Try to minimize disturbance of wildlife tracks that others may want to study, and leave the site in the same or better shape than it was found. This is especially true if you make a plaster cast. Pick up all the scraps and evidence so that anyone visiting the area later will find the site as clean and natural as you did.

Do not disturb

If you should be so fortunate as to find a set of tracks that leads directly to a den or resting site, back down the trail so you won't disturb the animal who left them.

Helpful resources

Animal Track Identification Guide (PDF) - Identify birds, mammals, and reptiles with this illustrated guide to different tracks.

Elbroch, Mark. Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003.

Farrand, John, Jr. Familiar Animal Tracks of North America: National Audubon Society Pocket Guide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Halfpenny, James. A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America. Boulder, CO: Johnson Books, 1986.

Murie, Olaus J. and Mark Elbroch. Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracking, Third Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005.

Rezendes, Paul. Tracking & The Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign, Second Edition. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999.

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