Cure for Cabin Fever

Animal Tracks
red fox in hot pursuit
Redfox in pursuit of dinner

For much of the year, a naturalist needs a sharp eye to see the signsof an animal's passage — the scuffed leaves on the forest floorwhere a deer ran, scattered droppings, the nipped twigs where a harefed. But when winter comes and the snow falls, the outdoor world becomesa clean page, recording in precise detail the dramas enacted on itssurface.

Naturalist, P.I.

At its most basic, tracking is simply finding and identifying tracks.This in itself can be a challenge, especially if you are a beginnertrying to discriminate between the similar tracks of gray and red foxes,for example. But the track itself is only the beginning — a skilledtracker is a sleuth, reading not only the print in the snow but itscontext with the surroundings, the other tracks in the trail, his orher knowledge of the animal's habits, even the nearby trails of otherspecies. Taken together, an experienced naturalist can guess a greatdeal about what the animal was doing, even what it was thinking, allfrom the tracks.

Signs of the Times

Actually, old-timers spoke most often about reading"sign," the catchallphrase for not just tracks, but any physical indication of a creature'spassing, including droppings, feeding remains, beds, dens, scratchings,and the like. Learning to see them is only the first step (and not alwayseasy, since some of the most revealing signs are also the most subtle).Next comes a sense of imagination: putting yourself in the animal'splace to figure out why it was doing what it was doing.

Use Your Imagination

Little things mean a lot when you're trying to unravel an animal's trail.Does the fox trail show a long line of evenly spaced tracks arrowingthrough the woods for hundreds of yards? Could be the fox was headingback to a safe haven before daylight. Or does the trail go in fits andstarts, long loping strides shortening to tentative steps, eventuallymarred by drag marks from the tail and the sweep of fur? Most likelythe fox was stalking something, sinking low to the ground as it movedmore and more slowly. Look ahead for the marks of a sudden rush — andthe tracks of a grouse, perhaps, budding in an aspen blowdown, unawareof danger creeping closer.

The Snow Knows

The best tracking snow is soft and wet, not too fluffy and not too deep(otherwise you get a collapsed hole with no detail). If you have a choice,wait a night or two after the snowfall before heading for the woods,to give the creatures time to move around. By carefully examining thetrack, you should be able to tell if it was made recently or is a dayor two old, with blurred edges or a drift of blowing snow inside theprint.

Helpful Hints

Should you lose the trail on open ground or crusted snow, mark the lasttrack with a hat and circle, in the hope of striking the trail oncemore. Here, too, intelligent guesses about the animal's habits and intentionspay off. And remember, a good tracker never steps on the trail beingfollowed — you may need to backtrack to reexamine a section.

Novice trackers would do well to read two excellent books on the subject:Olaus J. Murie's classic A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, partof the Peterson field guide series from Houghton Mifflin, and Tracking& the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes. Both books cover the spectrumof sign, from tracks to scat to dens.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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