THE ART OF TRACKING
How many species of animals live at Mt. Rainier? How many have you
seen? Even though we live in a National Park, we rarely see many of the
animals that live near us. Why not? Most animals move quickly and with
their sharp eyesight and/or keen sense of smell they are aware of the
stranger in their habitat (US!) well before we see them. Animals
normally fear man -- except, of course, for the Clark's Nutcracker,
Steller's Jay and Black-Tailed Deer who have learned to associate people
with food in some of our high visitation areas. Many species of animals
are also nocturnal, limiting further our chances to see them.
Often the only evidence we have of the presence of wild animals are
their tracks. You can learn a lot about an animal without ever having
seen it -- where it lives, what it eats, how big it is, who its enemies
are, its habits, even its age and sex. Tracking is not just following an
animal's footprints, it's following a record of that animal's
So when and where should you look for animal tracks? The majority of
animals are most active at twilight or night. If you want to see tracks
at their best, try tracking in early morning or late afternoon. The sun
casts the longest shadows at these times and the low-angle light makes
viewing the tracks easier. Tracks are best seen after rains (in mud or
wet sand along streams or river banks) or after a light fall of wet
snow. Winter offers a great opportunity to observe animal tracks.
Once you have tracked down the tracks, there are some basic
observations to make -
Observe the size of the individual tracks. This is a good
indicator of the animal's size. You can also estimate its body length by
noting the space between prints and the width between prints.
Do the tracks directly register? That is, does the animal place
its hind foot into the impression made by its front foot? Direct
registering serves a useful purpose -- animals that stalk their prey can
see where they place their front feet, so they don't break twigs or make
other noises. Then they place their hind feet in the exact spot, so they
can move silently from place to place. Cats will show perfect
registering; dogs have lost their ability to register.
Narrow down the possibilities according to the animal's gait. Tom
Brown (The Tracker) breaks down an animal's normal rate of travel
into 4 primary gaits:
A) DIAGONAL WALKERS include all dogs, cats, and hoofed animals. These
animals walk just like a baby crawls
-- moving limbs on opposite sides of the body at the same time.
B) PACERS include all wide-bodied animals -- bear, raccoon, skunk,
wolverine, badger, beaver, porcupine, muskrat and marmot. These animals
move both limbs on one side of the body at the same time with somewhat
of a shuffling gait.
C) BOUNDERS include most long-bodied, short-legged animals; mostly
members of the weasel family. Bounders walk by reaching out their front
feet and then bringing their back feet up directly behind them. The
track pattern is square or rectangular with 2 sets of closely spaced
D) GALLOPERS include all rabbits, hares, and rodents except for the
wide-bodied ones. These animals push off with their hind feet, hit with
their front feet and then bring their hind feet all the way through.
An interesting point to watch for in gallopers:
If the front feet hit side by side, it indicates a tree-dwelling animal;
if they hit on a diagonal it indicates a ground-dweller. For example,
the front feet of squirrels, which spend most of their time in trees,
hit side by side. The front feet of rabbits, which are ground dwellers,
hit at a diagonal. The same rule generally applies to birds. Woodpeckers
and sparrows hop on both feet at the same time. Quail and pheasants
alternate steps. Robins and crows (which spend time both in trees and on
the ground) do a little of both.
Following is a list of some of the specific animals or families we have
in our area and the distinguishing features of their tracks:
Dog Family -- distinctive "maple leaf" shape of tracks,
well-defined claw print. The fox is the only member of the dog family
that directly registers. All others indirectly register (as the front
foot is lifted, the hind foot comes down a little behind and to either
side of that print.) Fox also tend to walk in a straight line as opposed
to the wandering of a coyote or dog.
Cat Family -- 4 toes on front and rear. Cats directly register
and their front feet are markedly larger than their rear feet.
Deer Family -- Most people are familiar with the heart-shaped
print of the deer. Look for the split print showing the dew claw imprint
when they are running.
Weasel Family -- 5 toes both front and rear. This is a diverse
group whose tracks vary widely in shape and size. The gait and pattern
are useful for determining species.
Rodents -- 4 toes in front, 5 in rear. Tracks vary greatly in
size; track pattern is most helpful for ID. The typical gait pattern is
a wide U or V shape.
Rabbits and Hares -- 4 toes up front, 4 in the rear. The front
feet are placed one in front of the other. The rear feet are 2-4 times
larger and wider than the front feet. Their galloping gait leaves a
Black Bear, Raccoon -- 5 toes in front, 5 in rear. Claws
seldom show in the black bear's tracks. The hind prints are shaped like
human feet, only shorter and wider. Both the bear and the raccoon have a
plantigrade walk, which means they bring the heel of their back foot all
the way down as we do. The raccoon's tracks look like baby's hands.
Don't forget to use other signs to help identify the animal you are
tracking such as scats (droppings), holes and nests, scratching or
rubbing marks on trees, and inedible parts of food that they may have
left (sometimes in large piles).
By Koko Schlottman