Tracking Animals by Reading Tracks

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Tracking animals becomes somewhat easier when they leave their prints in freshly fallen snow.
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Without even seeing the tail, a skilled tracker would know a raccoon passed this way.
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The parts of an animal track.
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Diagram shows distinguishing features of animal gaits.
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Signature tracks of nine animals.

Blest with a Magic Power is he,
Drinks deep where others sipped;
And Wild Things write their lives for him
In endless manuscript.

-Ernest Thompson Seton
(“The Trailer”)

You wake on an unnaturally bright winter’s morning and, squinting, peer out your bedroom window. As unexpected as enchantment, a half-foot of snow has fallen while you slept, and you’re fairly pulled out of bed by the childish urge to be the first to mark the clean white sheet that’s settled over your yard. Ignoring coffee for once, you dress quickly, fired by the adrenaline high of dramatic weather, and rush outside … only to find that smaller feet have written where you’d hoped to scratch your name. Put your petty disappointment aside; here’s the chance to go to school on what master naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton called “the oldest of writing:” tracks.

Lesson One

Just as almost anyone can learn to read the written word, so can anybody master the vocabulary, sentence structure, and skill of tracking animals if he or she is willing to put in enough time and effort learning to read tracks.

The place to start reading tracks is just beyond your doorstep. Take the time to observe the animals that you later hope to track, starting with those that you can count on having around. Your dog, cat, or resident squirrel will, as you, watch it, provide invaluable information as to how it moves, and why. More important, when you can watch a track being made before looking at the results, you immediately move from the role of novice observer of prints to that of educated interpreter; you can actually watch behavior and action transferred to symbol.

Once you’ve “gotten to know” a representative from one animal family group (a dog provides the usual introduction to the canine family), move to another (the neighborhood’s strutting tomcat is a likely candidate). In each case, learn the animal’s habits, home range, and behavior patterns (and how these relate to breeding, bedding, and feeding). Keep in mind, though, that you’re dealing with individuals, and any rules you come up with will eventually be broken.

As you advance and spend more time observing wild animals, you’ll begin to lose any of the Bambi/Mickey Mouse stereotypes you might have harbored and to replace them with a knowledge of the motivation behind animal behavior. In short, most mammal activity revolves around eating, avoiding being eaten, sleeping, and breeding. Observe animals for long enough and you’ll be amazed by how simplistic, repetitive, and predictable their behavior begins to appear.

Pay attention to detail. What does the animal eat? If it’s a herbivore, does it prefer specific plants from one season to the next? If it’s carnivorous; does it concentrate upon a specific prey species? If it’s omnivorous, does it still show some discrimination in choosing its diet? Examine scat, when possible. Knowing what comes out will give you a pretty good idea of what went in.

Wherever the wild forefoot goes, it leaves behinda detailed record of its visit. — Seton

Lesson Two

After hours of watching animals in action, you’ll be well prepared to begin the study of their tracks, and that curriculum will eventually enable you to identify a mammal’s family, size, and sex without ever actually seeing the creature. No two groups of animals leave the same track (in fact, no two individual mammals will leave identical trails). After spending a few months on lesson one, you’ll most likely be quite familiar with the creatures that are “regulars” in your back yard, neighborhood or nearby river bottom, and will know when a newcomer has wandered through, adding a bit of exciting variety to the familiar manuscript.

You’ll be far better prepared to identify those occasional visitors once you learn the signature tracks of each animal group. Some of the words used to describe these keys may be new to you. They represent an introduction to the vocabulary required for reading the earth. Use the Tracker’s Dictionary we’ve compiled to help you along:

Track — An individual print that is part of a group of four, and is the basic building block of a trail.

Real track — The impression at the bottom of the print. Depth will vary with soil type, animal size, etc.

Overall track — The measure of the print at the surface of the soil. Sharpness will vary with age, ground surface, etc.

Track width — The outside measure, or “spread,” of the overall print.

Track length — The measure from heel to toe, excluding claws, of the overall print.

Plantar pad — Anyheel or non-toe pad.

Toe pads — The pads from each digit that make up the leading edge of the track.

The first factor to look for in identifying a signature track is the number of toes that generally show up in the prints (not necessarily the number found on the foot that made the track).

One toe front and hind — This track indicates an animal that walks on a single large toe (a hoof) with a solid crescent leading edge. The curve may be large and solid as in the tracks of horses or wild mustangs (is the animal wearing shoes?) or, in the case of burro tracks, small and heart-shaped, but lacking a cleft.

Two toes front and hind — This group includes deer, sheep, javelina, moose, elk and many other creatures that walk on two specially developed toes and sometimes show an additional pair of vestigial toes (dewclaws). The heart-shaped signature track is distinct from that of any other group, but you may find it difficult to determine which species made it. It’s safe to assume that goats have blunt toes with straight sides, deer have a very rounded edge to each toe, sheep have blocky toes, and pronghorns lack dewclaws.

Four toes front and hind — Most of your early tracking encounters will quite likely be with this group, which can show extremes of shape and size. All canines have four toes on each foot and generally show claw marks in tracks. The key shape is rectangular. The tracks of domestic dogs usually show the two inner toes to be the largest, and those toes are typically splayed out at angles to the direction of travel. Foxes and wolves tend to have toes of uniform size, and coyotes typically have larger outer toes. Both foxes and cats “direct register”; that is, the hind foot is placed directly into the front track of the same side, leaving only two prints where four feet have stepped. Canines have nonretractable claws (those of the gray fox are semiretractable and may not show in tracks).

The key shape of feline tracks is round rather than rectangular. In addition, the leading edge of a feline track’s plantar pad will show two distinct lobes.

For the purposes of tracking, the rabbits, hares, and pikas fall into this group rather than that of the rodents, since they show only four toes per foot. However, the rabbits, and all animals that follow, have larger hind feet than front, while the reverse is typically the case with other members of the “four toes front and hind” classification.

Four toes front, five toes hind — Actually,the palmlike prints of the members of the rodent group display four or five toes on the front or rear track. Since the family includes animals ranging in size from mice to beaver, and creatures that favor dry ground, wet ground, water or trees, it can provide the tracker with a real challenge. The tracks of the smaller rodents can be especially difficult to identify.

Five toes front and hind — Raccoons, ringtails, weasels (of all types), shrews, and bears make up this group. Raccoons and shrews show five toes front and rear consistently. Weasels and bears, though they have five toes per foot, may only reveal four in some prints. Bear and raccoon tracks are humanlike, those of the raccoon looking like the bare footprints of an infant. All members of this group are plantigrade, which means they place their heel down before their toes in walking, as we do.

It’s possible to distinguish the weasels from other members of the group by their distinctive one-three-one toe pattern, with the three inside toes clearly grouped together. These animals also display a triangular plantar pad. Skunk tracks will sometimes show a distinctive segmented, or two-part, pad.

These are inscriptions that every hunter must learn to read infallibly, and be they strong or faint, straight or crooked, simple or overwritten with many a puzzling diverse phrase, he must decipher and follow them swiftly, unerringly, if there is to be a successful ending to the hunt which provides his daily food. — Seton

Lesson Three

Examining individual tracks can tell you a lot about the animals that made them. However, if one print tells part of a story, the only way to find out how that tale ends is to get moving.

Every animal travels in a distinctive way. Each species has a preferred gait which provides the most efficient means of movement for its particular shape, body weight, etc. These signature gaits, then, can help you identify a string of tracks. For example, dogs lope, rabbits hop, cats walk, weasels bound, and so forth. However, these are rough rules only. All animals will, at times, use any of a great variety of gaits, but all will also return to their signature gaits when the opportunity arises. And, as with signature tracks, there are terms used to describe signature gait patterns:

Gait group — All of the tracks that make up one sequence of contact between the animal’s body and the ground.

Gait interspace — The distance between gait groups.

Pace — The distance between one track and the next on the opposite side.

Stride — The distance between one track and the next on the same side.

Pitch — The angle of a track to the direction of travel.

Once a signature track is found, a signature gait recognized, and the animal making it identified, you may want to follow the trail. You’ll have the most success, especially early on, if you limit your trailing to tracks in fresh snow, in the soft sand of a river bottom, or on the clean surface of a dirt road dampened by a recent storm. As time goes by, you’ll be able to trail over more difficult surfaces, and to use the tracks, the combinations of gaits employed, and other evidence in the trail to interpret the tale of each animal’s actions in great detail. When you reach that point, every jaunt in the wild will become an experience to rival the Arabian Nights, as 1,001 remarkable stories unfold themselves before you.

Editor’s Note: “Uncle Dave” Wescott is the director of the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, dedicated to the preservation and teaching of wilderness skills.

For a detailed look into the language of tracks, we don’t think you can beat James Halfpenny’s A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America, Johnson Books, 1986. Check your library, or ask your bookstore to order the $11.95 volume.