The first thing to learn about tracking is knowing where to look for animals. Much of this is done by what is called "sign tracking". Signs are anything besides a track proper that is an indication of an animal - e.g. trails, scat (animal waste), etc. About 1/2 of tracking is sign tracking the other 1/2 is working with actual tracks.
I. Landscape Tracking - this is reading the landscape to locate animals. In most landscapes there are "islands" where many species will be found. One way to look is to find the best "islands" for herbivores. Wherever there are herbivores, carnivores will follow. The areas between the islands will tend to be scarce of animals except as an area for animals to pass through.
II. Travel Routes - Animals will tend to take the easiest route of travel across a landscape (just like you and I - around boulders etc.) unless they are being pursued. This results in the creation of a number of "roadway systems" within the habitat. Sticking to a roadway system when being chased is poor. The prey is usually smaller than the predator and therefore tries to push through tiny openings in deep brush where the larger predator can't follow.
III. Animal Sleeping Areas
Ex. Fox is an open ground sleeper, it curls up in the brush. For birthing it excavates a hole or uses an old groundhog hole for a den. Ex. The groundhog hole is a place for the groundhog to live. While it is raising young it is a groundhog den.
IV. Feeding Areas
This makes up the largest assortment and most definitive sign. It is found all over especially on trails and runs.
I. 8 Most Important:
Scat Analysis: First determine the family shape. Then lay the scat on a piece of paper, cut it down the center carefully, then quarter it. Take a pair if tweezers or a toothpick and pick away at the edge carefully. Separate the contents into piles of bone, feathers, hair, misc. in order to see what the animal's been eating (this is for carnivores). If you find a skull, check Peterson's Field Guide to Mammals for skull or teeth identification. Herbivores tend to show loose, mushy scat in the summer because they are browsing on soft succulent vegetation. As summer turns to fall you will find more evidence of nuts, seeds, and fruits. In winter the scat becomes quiet hard and compact consisting mainly of the more woody buds, twigs, and bark. Avoid using your fingers to work with scat (wear gloves). If the scat is dry and dusty, don't inhale the dust (can lead to lung infections).
Tubular - Dog Family, raccoon, skunks, opossum, wolverines, bears Tear drop or Tapered - Cat Family Fattened Threads - Weasel Family M&M's - Rabbits & Hares Oblong, may have nipple at end - Deer Pencil Lead - Rodents Fox - Tubular & Tapered at both ends - between dog and cat
Aging Scat: can be aged but to be at all accurate you need to see it come out of the animal. Leave a popsicle stick marker and check it every so often. Scat dries from the inside out. Find some fresh, pick it apart and examine the contents. Come back later, pick another apart and see how it has changed over time.
Pellets: Raptors (hawks, eagles, and owls) regurgitate pellets of what isn't digested. These pellets consist of bones, hair and/or feathers.
This is an interface between tracks proper and disturbances not on the ground which disappear (or seem to).
When a track is made, the heel slides into the ground, registers and pulls out. No track will register straight down. There is always some angled component (looking at the track cross-section) either from the foot entering or the foot leaving.
The softer the soil, the greater the slope of the wall creating a larger distortion between the overall track and the true track. Most people don't read the true track. They read the horizon cuts (overall track) which does not give the true track measurement. The true track is the only real measurement for tracking. If you read the overall track you could not tell the difference between a dog track and a coyote track. E.g. on a dog the inner toes are larger than the outer toes; on a coyote the outer toes are larger. But this distinction will not show on the overall track.
You need to measure the length and width of all four tracks (2 in humans). When measuring animal tracks the length readings between tracks are measured from toe to toe because animals hit first with their toes. In humans it is measured from heel to heel because we land heel first.
Overall Pitch - 1/2 track width = True Pitch
Ex. 4" wide track, 3" overall pitch 3 - (1/2 * 4) = 1" = true pitch
This is because if there is no pitch there would still be 2" from the line through the track to the heel line. So this measurement must be subtracted.
Ex. 2" - (1/2 * 4") = 0
5% 1) Clear Print - when you can
see the track clearly in soft soil, all toes visible.
95% 2) Pattern Classification - no clear print, you must tell track by general shape and size of track
The front and rear tracks on one side will be near each other. You need to note the number of toes in the front track and the rear track. Looking at the track you will also note the type of preferred gait used by the animal (in order to differentiate between front and rear tracks).
See diagrams below.
There are a number of different types of locomotion patterns. 90 - 95% of the time an animal will use this method of locomotion. In each case below the gait described is the normal walking pattern for that animal. As the animals speed changes this pattern will change (ex. moving slowly, in pursuit, being chased).
RF = right front LR = left rear, etc.
1) Continuum of Speed:
Stalk ------->Slow Walk -------->Walk ------->Trot ------->Bound ------->Lope ------->Gallop
2) Diagonal Walkers - the animal
moves the opposite sides of the body at the same time (e.g. RF & LR move
Deer Dog Cat - cat and fox direct register by being completely off the ground at one point
3) Bound Walkers - the front feet
land together, then the rear feet behind 99.9% of the time these animals use
this pattern even when moving slow or fast. Stride measured from rear toes to
Weasel Family - All Members Except Skunks & Badgers
4) Gallop Walkers - the front feet
land first, then the rear feet come on the outside of the front feet and land
ahead. 99.9% of the time these animals use this pattern even when moving slow or
fast. Stride measured from rear toes to rear toes. The pattern doesn't change
with speed. The distance between sets of tracks increases.
Rabbits Hares Rodents - Except Porcupine & Ground Hog
If the front feet hit at a diagonal = ground dwelling rodent e.g. Rabbit, and the front foot that is further back is the one that hit first - sidedness (punch step). If the front feet hit side by side, it is a tree dweller e.g. Squirrel (just like tree dwelling birds - "hoppers")
5) Pacers - move the same side of
the body at the same time (e.g. RF & RR) - these animals have wide, rotund
bodies. These are the exceptions from the other groups. 95% of the time these
animals use this pattern. As speed increases, they change their pattern.
Badgers Skunk Porcupine Opossum Raccoon Bear
6) Variations on Pattern Classifications - 5% of the time. All animals can change their gait. In particular, Diagonal Walkers and Pacers will change their pattern as their speed increases.
In between these major patterns there is a continuum of discernable pattern variations.
RR --> RF --> LR --> LF
Tracking by patterns allows you to track over hard ground over a long distance.
1. Diagonal Walkers
Species Note: Deer prefer to gallop for high speed except for the Black Tail Deer and the Mule Deer that prefer to bound because they live in rocky areas.
2. Bound Walkers
Note: This is an example of how you can tell the "emotional state" of an animal by looking at its tracks.
3. Gallop Walkers
1) Sidedness - if one front foot is behind the other over 4 - 5 tracks that foot is on the dominant side. The animal will have a tendency to circle in that direction.
2) Sex - (this works for diagonal walkers only). Deer for example, just because a track is deep or splayed wide does not mean that animal is male. There are variations in the size of animals of the same species from location (different amounts of feed). Male deer (bucks) and female deer (does) have different bone structure. Doe - pelvic girdle > shoulder girdle (for birthing). Buck - shoulder girdle > pelvic girdle (to support antlers). In order to tell the sex of the animal you must compare the animal to itself. Find the front track on one side. The look for the rear track on that side. If the rear track is to the inside of the front track = male, a rear track to the outside = female. This system works only for adult animals. Immature animals have not finished bone development and may have rear track falling exactly behind front track.
Cats are another example because they direct register. Then how do you tell whether the rear foot is inside or outside the front? In cats (and foxes) the front foot is larger (by 1/3) that the rear foot. Thus the rear track will fall in the front track and be to the inside or the outside. Inside = male Outside = female.
1) The single most important factor in track degradation (and thereby aging) is weather and weather fluctuations.
2) Gravity is the second major factor in track degradation.
3) The third factor is the type of soil. The only way to learn to age tracks is to observe a track degrade over time with given soil conditions and weather conditions. Soils are classified from 1 to 10 with 1 being sand and 10 being clay (soft to hard). You must estimate the soil classification first. Then keep an accurate record of weather changes and by observing a track you will develop a sense of how a track degrades in that type of soil with those weather conditions. Weather conditions to be aware of are temperature, humidity, wind, precipitation, and hours of direct sunlight on the tracks.
4) Wisdom of the Marks - Do this once a month for three months and you will cover all seasons for the type of soil in your area (if possible do it with various types of soil). Clean out rectangular area of soil. Remove all rocks, transplant plants etc. Dig down 2 inches, break up soil into smooth texture, pat it down smooth and leave it to settle for 24 hours. Using a stick or object approximately 1/2 inch diameter make 5 marks in a row in the soil with varying pressure from a touch to enough to go 1/2 inch deep. Look at the marks carefully for 10 minutes to ingrain into your subconscious what they look like. Write down weather conditions. Come back 6 hours later and repeat the entire process making the new marks with the same implement and the same pressures in a row next to the first marks. You will now have fresh marks and 6 hour old marks to compare. Study both for 10 minutes. Come back in 6 hours and again 6 hours after that and again in 6 hours. This will give you a comparison of track degradation at 6 hours, 12 hours, 18 hours and 24 hours. Then go back every 24 hours for 6 days and you will see the track age and degrade over a week. After doing this summer, fall, winter, and spring you will begin to learn how to age tracks to within 2 hours of their being made. It is also advisable to do this whenever you move into a new area for tracking.
1) File card learning Method - Read about an animal in the Peterson's field guide an prepare a scan card on a 3 x 5 index card. By scanning these cards during "blow off time," you will quickly learn to recognize tracks.
2) Tracking Stick - This can be either primitive ( a stick with notches cut into it) or advanced a dowel with rubber bands ("O" ring washers work great). The stick should be about 3' x 1/4" and very straight. The tip should be sharpened to give a point. The stick is used to measure a track and give you a standard for comparing and looking for the next track.
Since animals walk 95% of the time the tracking stick is a useful way to find the next track. If you lay the 3rd mark over the center of the last track the stick will point to the center of the area where the next track will be. To find the track add the straddle. If you don't find the track, ask yourself what does the landscape tell you? Uphill, downhill will shorten the stride; debris - does the animal understep or overstep it? Soft earth will have an effect on stride length.
3) Track Pack - Carrying these items with you will help in learning to track.
All the information you need to find the next track is within the one you have. Never skip a track (cross-tracking); it doesn't teach you anything. If you hit "the wall" and can't find the next track, work at it, analyze it. This is how you learn to be a good tracker. If you spend 2 hours to find the next track, your skill will grow to a higher level.
In any tracking situation you need to be aware of what the local environmental hazards are in order to avoid accidents. This is a general list for a typical mid-Atlantic forest region.
Sample Environmental Hazards:
Animal tracking diagrams are a great way to learn basic track identification. Each diagram shows a general type of animal showing the basic track shape, standard walking gait and some basic facts about the tracks of the animals in that family.
Animal Track Listing By Number of Toes
4 Toes Front, 5 Toes Hind
Hispid Cotton Rat
Ord's Kangaroo Rat
Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel
Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel
Southern Flying Squirrel
Valley Pocket Gopher
Thanks to Rick Curtis for the majority of the above information.