Animal tracking is an incredible way to explore Nature with kids. While glimpsing a coyote or deer might be rare, their tracks are not. You just have to learn how and where to look.
When you find a track with your kids, have everyone take care not to step on any other prints that might be in line with it. Encourage kids to get down close by getting on your own knees to examine it.
Bring your faces close to the print. Tracks have a couple of key features that help you identify “who” the animal is.
Count the toes The number of toes in a track helps you narrow it down. For example, deer or elk hooves show two toes, while weasels like mink and marten show five toes.
Check for claws Look for the presence or absence of claws. People often overlook tiny claw marks, so look carefully. For example, dog tracks show claws and cat tracks don’t (they keep them sheathed).
Look at pad shape Pad shape also helps you key the track out. For example, cats have a distinct m-shaped pad that is all one piece, while squirrels have a pad that is made up of many parts.
Compare size Once you figure out it’s some kind of cat, the size of the track will help you identify if it’s Fluffy the house cat or the local cougar that ate Fluffy (hey, cougars gotta eat).
There are other track features you can learn about, such as symmetry, webbing, hair on the foot, gait, and negative space, which will give you more clues to identify the animal.
Tools & Teachers
Bring a notebook for drawing and writing details down, along with a small pocket tape measure. Many excellent field guides offer average measurements for tracks. We recommend Mammal Tracks and Sign by Mark Elbroch. You can also find many great resources online.
Where to Track
When you first start tracking, it’s best to begin with clear prints. Look for ground (substrate) where the foot can leave behind as much detail as possible. Good ground to search for tracks are sandy or silty floodplains, beaches near forests, or snow-covered ground in winter.
5 Fingers of Tracking
Identification is just the start. At Trackers we teach the 5 Fingers of Tracking. These are series of questions kids ask to learn more about the animal they are tracking.
Thumb Who is this animal?
Index How was this animal moving?
Middle When was this track made?
Ring Why was this animal here (food, shelter, etc.)?
Pinky Where is this animal now?
Stay tuned for more blogs how to share animal tracking with kids. Plus, our new upcoming kids book, Animal Tracking.