Wildly Nature Investigators (N.I.): Animal Tracks
Updated: Apr 5
Becoming a N.I. (Nature Investigator) can be very satisfying when strolling through the park or backpacking through the wilderness. Opening this (N.I.) door is actually quite simple if you know the basics. Join me monthly to learn something new that will help you discover different animals, plants, and insects in your own backyard. So, grab your hiking boots and let’s investigate!
The word track is a fancy way to summarize footprints or markings left behind by an animal, insect, or even a human being. They show us where something has been and where it is going. Tracks can also tell us stories of things that might have happened. Today we are going to learn the tools you need to investigate tracks, how to find and identify them, and use our new knowledge to determine some animal tracks.
Nature Investigators Tracks Tool Box
Curiosity for learning
Patience in searching
Eyes for finding
Ruler for measuring size
Field guide for solving
Finding tracks is usually easy, but sometimes it can be really difficult. The weather makes a big impact on the ease of finding tracks. The right conditions for finding an abundance of tracks would be mud, sand, or snow. Not only do these conditions make it easier to spot tracks, but you can also get clues as to whether the tracks are fresh or not.
Before pulling out your field guide, or phone, to help you figure out who left a track behind, there are some questions you should ponder first. Just like any investigative “crime” scene, you focus on the Five Ws (Who, What, When, Where, and Why) and “How” while finding the suspect. I want you to use them while identifying animal tracks.
WHY would an animal be in this area?
It could be for food, water, and/or shelter. Knowing why an animal would be in that specific habitat will help you determine who’s tracks you are looking at. Also, knowing what animals are common to that area will help you narrow down your options in the end.
WHEN did the animal leave its track?
Knowing the recent weather patterns will help you figure out how fresh the tracks are. As I mentioned above mud, sand, and snow make tracking easier. If a muddy track is dry and firm it is most likely a few days old, whereas a track that is wet and has some give is more recent. Similarly, tracks left in fresh powdered snow are newer than those left in icy snow.
WHERE did the animal come from and where did it go?
Some animals like White-Tailed Deer leave obvious paths to help you realize who has been in the area. Finding these and other similar paths will help keep you hot on an animal’s trail, even if you cannot clearly see their tracks.
WHAT was the animal doing?
Was it running, walking, hopping, hunting, drinking water, or maybe even laying down? Animals can leave behind signs besides their tracks. For example, wolves travel in packs and will gather together to sun in open areas, When they get up they sometimes leave behind clear indents of their bodies and tails on the ground.
HOW does the animal walk?
There are a few specific types of “walks” different animals have. Understanding the different types will help you determine the species.
Bounder/Galloper tracks are made in pairs (i.e. rabbit, mink, mouse, weasel, squirrel)
Pacer/Waddler tracks tend to alternate and will sometimes leave a tail trail (i.e. shrew, skunk, racoon, bear)
Walker/Diagonal tracks tend to make a straight line (i.e. fox, coyote, deer)
WHO has made the track?
Now you can pull out your field guide, or phone, to help you identify who has been there. Sometimes animals have similar looking tracks which can make it difficult for identifying. The size of a track, including its width, will help you narrow it down even more.
Figure out what animals left these tracks behind by using the provided tracking guides (scroll left and right through the guide to see different tracks).
Using your resources try solving the tracks below! (See answers below)
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1.) It’s a Wild Turkey!
The Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) track doesn’t differ much from other bird tracks. However, based on its size you can tell it isn’t the track of a Ruffed Grouse or an American Crow. This photo is unique as well because it shows the spur (long talon) of a male turkey on the left.
2.) It’s a Red fox!
A Red Fox (Vulpes Vulpes) and other canine tracks will show claw marks compared to those of a feline. We can tell that this is a fox and not a dog or coyote based on the gap in the middle of all the pads and the elongated track.
3.) It’s a Gray Squirrel!
Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) tracks look like cute tiny hands! Also, this photo clearly shows the bounder/galloper walking style that squirrels have. This means that their tracks are made in pairs and can sometimes even overlap with each other.
4.) It’s a White-Tailed Deer!
The track of a White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is like an arrow. This arrow points you in the direction the deer was headed. Moose and many other hoofed animals have similar looking tracks, but we know this is a White-Tailed Deer based on its size.
5.) It’s a Racoon!
Compare the walking patterns of the Racoon (Procyon lotor) to that of the Gray Squirrel. Although the tracks look fairly similar, the walking style helps us determine the animal. Racoons are pacers/waddlers so their tracks alternate instead of forming pairs.
Reference Photo Citations (in viewing order)
1: Sims, C. (2013, March 10). Wildlife Tracks Information. Retrieved from http://ecowildlifesolutions.com/wildlife-tracks-information/
2 & 3: Latest ANIMAL TRACKS ID sheets. (2013, May 01). Retrieved from https://hikingmichigan.wordpress.com/2011/01/21/latest-animal-tracks-id-sheets/
4: Hougardy, M. (2017, June 30). A Story on the Ground – Getting to Know Track Patterns. Retrieved from https://www.letsgoexploring.com/blog/2017/06/a-story-on-the-ground-getting-to-know-track-patterns/
5: Clifford, C. (n.d.). Discovering the World of Animal Tracks. Retrieved from http://cwf-fcf.org/en/news-features/articles/animal-tracks.html
Photo Flip Cards (in viewing order)
1: Virginia State Parks. (2012, December 29). Wild Turkey tracks. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/vastateparksstaff/8322318922/
2: Palmer, K. (n.d.). Fox or Dog. Retrieved from https://www.woodland-ways.co.uk/blog/others/fox-or-dog/
3: Grey Squirrel Tracks [Personal photograph taken in Riveredge Nature Center-Saukville, WI]. (2019, January 4).
4: Deer Tracks. (2018, January 10). Retrieved from http://www.naturetracking.com/deer-tracks/
5. Ophis. (2010, February 07). Raccoon tracks. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/ophis/4337572197/
McKay, B., & McKay, K. (2018, May 26). How to Identify and Track Animal Footprints. Retrieved from https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/how-to-track-animals-a-primer-on-identifying-footprints/
WikiHow. (2019, February 04). How to Identify Animal Tracks. Retrieved from https://www.wikihow.com/Identify-Animal-Tracks