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The Art of Observing: A Good Impession

Deciphering Tracks

All Animals magazine

All Animals July/August 09 Wildlife Racoon

Heather Fone/The HSUS

by Ruthanne Johnson

Whether in sand, snow, or mud, wild animals leave traces of their presence and behavior in tracks—an open book for those who know how to read it. A rabbit moves across the snowy field and weaves a trail that shows a cautious exploration for food amidst a concern for exposure to predators.

And well so: A fox’s trail intercepts the rabbit’s and follows it, as predator and prey move in synchrony across the winter landscape. Suddenly the pattern changes. Greater spacing between prints tells of increasing speed, and a zigzag shows where the fox left off the chase. The rabbit’s trail ends at a clump of raspberry vine; the fox’s goes its separate way across the field.

Tracks are often the most apparent evidence of wildlife, especially with elusive species such as raccoons, opossums, foxes, and coyotes. A quiet backyard pockmarked with footprints elicits wild imaginings that breathe life into static signs, revealing speed and whether the animal was foraging, injured, or even carrying a heavy load.

“Following the animal will only disrupt it,” says Pauli. “You will learn more about the animal by collecting every piece of data on 10 feet of tracks.”

To identify and interpret wild animals’ tracks, first learn about their feet—features such as shape and size, number of toes, claws, spacing between the pads, and length of the stride. Mammals’ feet generally have heel pads and separate toe pads with nails or claws.

Canine species such as wolf and coyote leave toenail registers or claw marks, while feline species such as mountain lion and bobcat walk with their claws retracted.

Members of the canine and feline families have four digits and walk on their toes and toe pads; bears, raccoons, and skunks walk on the soles of their feet, rolling from their heel toward their five toes. Hoofed species such as deer, bison, and bighorn sheep walk entirely on the ends of their toes.

An animal’s gait also conveys information. Chipmunks and squirrels tend to gallop and hop, leaving front and back paw prints that are clumped together. Coyotes and wolves typically leave a line of alternating tracks that sometimes overlap.

Coyotes also trot to cover long distances in search of prey, stopping often to listen for soft sounds or notice slight movements. Animals with a high metabolism,  such as the weasel, have a gait that helps them quickly cover a lot of ground to find food, while bobcats maintain a slow, stealthy gait, punctuated with strategic pauses to sit and wait for prey.

Location of the animals’ tracks provides another clue. Prey animals rarely wander far from their burrows or coves, while predators’ tracks can be traced at their prey’s potential hiding spots.

Rezendes has seen a bobcat lie in wait for a meal near a bustling snowshoe hare run.

Terrain can affect the size of the track and the animal’s gait at the time of the imprint. Deep mud may cause tracks to appear smaller than normal, while snow has the opposite effect. On slippery ground, an animal may move more slowly, crawl, or flounder.

Coyotes bound through deep snow, while many animals follow in the footsteps of others to minimize expenditure of energy on a cold day.

Soft soils, shallow mud, snow, and firm, moist sand yield the best tracks. “There’s nothing better for looking at animal tracks than a fresh snowfall or around a water source, like riverbanks after the river swells and then lowers,” says Pauli.

When good tracking conditions are not available, you can create a better environment by raking or smoothing the earth in areas frequented by animals. And keep an eye out for windfalls of apples, grapes, or other fruits that have fallen from trees; you’re likely to spot tracks from animals who stopped to have a snack.

You can keep records of the tracks you find in a journal or by making plaster casts; nearly every tracking guide offers guidelines.

Rezendes says tracking allows him to get inside an animal’s world. “For example, if you track a bobcat all day in the snow— find a day-old trail so you don’t disturb the animal—you are walking in its environment, understanding what it eats, seeing what it sees,” he says.

Sometimes, of course, the animal isn’t keen to let the tracker read his mind. Rezendes once led a group of students near a bobcat’s still-warm bed of pressed-down vegetation.

To teach them a lesson—that more can be learned by not following an animal closely—Rezendes waited by the bed while his students tested their tracking skills.

“Bobcats use all kinds of tricks to throw people off,” he says.

“They walk over fallen branches with lots of twigs, wriggling through them, or take long jumps off fallen logs into watery forest seeps.” Despite their proximity, his students lost the trail. When Rezendes glimpsed the cat coming through the vegetation, he realized the animal had circled the students.

“It will become a deep knowledge that gets into the cellular level.”

“These animals are really smart, and the bobcat thought this would throw them off,” he says, “and it did.”

Tell Us Your Wild Tales!

Everyone has at least one great wildlife story—whether it is about the groundhog who lives under your deck, the butterflies who visit your balcony garden, bear tracks you found while hiking, or the lone coyote who howled along with your campfire sing-a-long.

Maybe it’s a story about some wild creature exhibiting behavior not documented in the textbooks or an anecdote about animals living in unexpected places, such as the mama mouse who raised her young in your snow boots. We want to hear about these rich experiences that connect us all to the web of life. Email your small and tall wild tales and photos to allanimals@humanesociety.org.


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