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Learn to Track Animals

White-tailed deer is easy to identify - often deep hoof prints made by a heavy animal. Photo by Mary Reed.

Whether you want to hunt, take wildlife photos or see that coyote you heard howling last night, the art of tracking is the skill that will come in handy.

“If you’re looking for wildlife (and) you can’t track, you’re not going to be very effective,” says Trinity Shepherd, park naturalist for Jenny Wiley State Resort Park, KY and lifelong hunter. Like so many other outdoor skills, getting started in tracking is pretty easy and it can get as challenging as you want from there.

Get to know your species. First decide which species – one or a few – you want to track and read up on them. A good place to start is at the nearest park nature center where they will likely have basic information about the park’s species and might also have a small library of nature books for loan or sale. Learn where you can expect to find your species. An elk, for example, is a grazer – it likes open areas – while a deer is a browser that you’ll find more often in the forest.

Get some guidance. When you’re ready to head out, try a quick reference guide to basic tracks, like the Acorn Naturalists field guides. Find someone who already knows a lot about tracking, either through your nearby park or your own social network. “Tag along with them,” Trinity says, “kind of like a small internship or field study with somebody who knows what they’re doing.”

Start in a good place at a good time. Once again, start at your nearby park for ease of access and abundance of wildlife, since parks are sanctuaries for wildlife. Look for tracks near a water source (“Everything has to drink,” Trinity points out) and try tracking following a rain, when the soil is soft. Better yet, track after a snowfall in the winter – when tracking doesn’t get any easier.

Follow in their footsteps. Once you find some tracks, follow them as long as you can. When you start to lose the track, look at the direction of the last track and the distance between the animal’s steps. Estimate direction and distance based on this information and look where you’d expect to find the next track. If you don’t see it, continue in that direction one step length at a time to try to pick up the trail again.

Look for more than tracks. Animals leave all kinds of signs of their recent presence aside from tracks. You’ve probably seen animal trails in the woods and in fields. This fall, look on tree trunks to see where deer are scratching. Look in the leaf litter for turkey scratch where they’ve been digging for grubs and mast. A couple of the most obvious signs are tree trunks gnawed into an hourglass shape by beavers and, of course, scat – everything has to poop, too.

Do the legwork. There’s no replacement for time in the field. Put the hours in. At home, you can sweep a sandy area or make a sandbox to sweep and check for tracks regularly. When you get really into it, try making cast molds of footprints you find in the field, just like they do with Sasquatch prints. “The best way to improve your skills is just to get out there,” says Trinity, who leads visitors on elk tours at Jenny Wiley, “The way that I’ve done it is just years of experience.”

Easy species to track
White-tailed deer: Abundant and heavy animals that leave good tracks
Raccoons: Abundant by water sources, they have distinct prints – front and back paws differ
Opossums: Their tracks resemble a bony human hand with an outstretched thumb – that’s the big toe.
Rabbits: Also abundant animals with very distinctive prints when they hop
Wild turkeys: Large bird prints often found where they’ve been scratching up leaf litter
Dogs and coyotes: Dogs are abundant and the bigger species are heavy – you’ll see plenty of dog tracks. Coyotes, which are of course related to dogs, have a wider front paw than rear paw and coyotes are on the light side – generally only 30 to 40 pounds, so their tracks will be lighter than a big dog’s.