Below is an excerpt from an expert tracker, Jonathan Poppele. He wrote the book, Animal Tracks: Midwest Edition:
“Tracking is the study and interpretation of the footprints and other signs left behind by animals as they go about their lives. Tracking does not necessarily mean following a string of footprints to locate the animal that made them. It means understanding the footprints, scrapes, chews, digs, and scat that we inevitably run across when we are out in nature. Tracking begins with identifying the animal that left the tracks and signs behind for us to see, and grows into an understanding of the intimate details of that animal’s life.”
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Animal Tracking Tutorial 101
In winter, studying animal tracks will give you a lot of information about who is active in your area. The best snow depth to read animal tracks is 1-4 inches. When there is more snow, it is difficult to see the patterns that each animal leaves. Tracking is all about looking at patterns and knowing where an animal is most likely to be found.
There are three basic groups of track patterns to learn.
2. Walkers – “big foot” and “little foot”
In identifying the three species below, the important things to look for is the size of the track and the position of the front foot and the hind foot. Also, the beaver and muskrat are only found in wetland areas, whereas raccoons are found in many different habitats including wetlands.In all cases the hind foot is larger than the smaller front foot.
3. Straight-line walkers
Both deer and fox step with the hind foot falling exactly in the track of the front foot. Thus, the pattern in the snow appears that the animals are two-legged. This behavior is called “registering”and it helps the animal to conserve energy when walking in deep snow.
After you determine whether it is a hopper, straight line walker, or a “big foot-little foot”, Look at the pattern closely and notice how many inches there are between tracks or clumps of tracks. Also, think about the habitat you are seeing the tracks. Some animals are restricted to certain habitats (ie beaver, mink, and muskrat are found in wetlands).
Foxes leave a neat pattern in the snow because the hind foot steps in the front foot track (registering). Registering helps a fox to conserve energy, when walking in deep snow. It’s cousin, the dog, does not register and leaves a much sloppier track. Deer also register, with the hind foot walking in the front foot track. Also, a deer hoof is easy to see when the snow is packed, and they usually drag their hooves. However, in deep snow, the hooves are more spread out and the dew claw is visible in the back of the track.
Expert tracker and author, Linda Spielman, made the following comment about mink:
Larry, I see that you have put the mustelids (weasel family) in the section with the straight-line walkers, but they don’t belong there. Sometimes mink are more like the hoppers but at other times they lope or gallop like deer and dogs. Mink are known to walk, but not very often. Maybe you need a fourth category.
My book contains between 6 and 12 drawings for each of 40 species, each drawing meticulously and accurately copied from one or several photographs.
Each species treatment also includes written sections that discuss important details and point out differences and similarities between different species. Gait patterns can be as important as individual tracks for identification, so the typical gaits for each species are illustrated with diagrams and explained in written discussions. Measurements are given for tracks and gaits, and there is also a short section on habitat, sign, and scat.
By focusing on the tracks themselves and limiting other topics I was able to produce a book that is easily carried in a day pack and yet remarkably comprehensive. My book arises out of my own experience tracking northeastern mammals, but the approach will be beneficial for trackers in any region. A Field Guide to Tracking Mammals in the Northeast is available from major booksellers. I can also ship it directly to you. You can send a check for $15.66 ($13.00 + $2.66 media mail) to Linda Spielman, PO Box 955, Dryden, NY 13053. I welcome your comments; visit www.lindajspielman.com, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Animal Tracks: Midwest Edition is a pocket sized guide to the tracks and sign of Midwestern mammals. Excellent illustrations and quick identification tips help you get started. Track pattern illustrations, scat photos and descriptions of other signs that animals leave behind provide more clues to help to with identification. The information is easy enough for beginners yet detailed enough for experienced trackers.
Praise for Animal Tracks: Midwest Edition
“There are many great guides to identifying animal tracks. A few are truly excellent and some others are surprisingly misleading. Animal Tracks: Midwest Edition by Jonathan Poppele is a book that surprised me. It has fantastic track drawings, accurate information, and a very smart organization method. This book is inexpensive and worth adding to your library.”–Jonah Evans, tracking expert and State Mammalogist for Texas Parks and Wildlife.
The book is widely available at State Parks, Wildlife Refuges, major book sellers, and online book sellers. The Second Edition is scheduled for release by January 2021. Readers can order directly from the publisher, Adventure Publications 1-800-678-7006.