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.
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.
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.
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.
Many people think tracking is simply following footprints. They believe its usefulness is limited to hunters and naturalists. Tracking can be seen as arcane and irrelevant in the face of science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and other conventional educational benchmarks.
Yet I suggest that the ancient art of tracking is the most valuable way of seeing, perceiving and learning that you can ever teach a child (or an adult).
While tracking you wait in silence. While tracking you create detailed and progressively more accurate maps in your mind: maps within maps within maps. While tracking you train yourself to see what’s hidden. While tracking you hunt down the information at the edges of your awareness.
The bird tells me where the fox lays. The fox tells me about the movements of coyotes. The absence of coyotes leads me to cougars. The cougar trails the elk as I track it. The elk reveal how spring will unfold this year.
Tracking goes beyond nature. It helped me create a teaching organization (Trackers) that many insisted would be impossible. While starting Trackers, prominent outdoor educators told me:
“That’s not possible.”
“Get a real job… with an established organization.”
“Your challenges are insurmountable.”
In spite of that, Trackers has grown from 40 campers our first summer to nearly 15,000 students per year. Tracking teaches us that “impossible” is often an irrelevant concept. At Trackers, we go beyond obvious puzzles and obstacles to discover hidden opportunities.
When people say, “Look at this problem!” we respond with, “Yes, and now let’s uncover all the unseen possibilities.”
At Trackers, opportunity and creativity are never obvious: They are elusive trails we must hunt down. Anything else would be boring. Tracking does more than teach this awareness, it hardwires mindfulness into our senses, both in body and spirit.
While some people are able to gain these skills outside of nature, I believe something is still missing. In the long-term, learning to understand only the human world is easy. No matter how complex the jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces are ultimately familiar when the challenge is limited to a human-centric scope.
Nature forces us to empathize in more radical ways. The behavior of a song sparrow proves as subtle as epistemology or metaphysics.
Through tracking in nature we step out of a world designed for humans only; we become ambassadors for a culture that needs to exist. One that respects diversity, mindfulness and creativity.
“Alright,” you’re thinking, “If tracking is so useful, how do I learn to do it or teach my child the basics?” Here’s a good place to start:
1. Find wilderness wherever you find yourself and visit it consistently (morning and evening at a minimum). Wilderness can be a sparrow in your backyard hedges or wildflowers in the city park. Wild is the more than human world.
2. When visiting wilderness, don’t bring your human trappings. Leave behind the field guides, gear, your phone… although you may need pants. Of course, bring the survival gear you need, and train to need it less.
3. Pay attention to what is actually happening around you, not what you think is happening. Silence, stillness and wide-angle vision (we call this Whiskers) prove truly helpful for developing this.
4. Always look at footprints within the context of how that animal is connected to the larger ecosystem. Clear tracks and other overt sign are only single words in a larger narrative.
5. Pay attention to birds and see how they react to you. Then figure out how they react to other animals. Then see how the animals react to birds reacting to you. Finally, get the birds to not react to you. Now you’re invisible.
6. Always be excited to prove yourself wrong. Really excited. Even more important, recognize everything changes. All the time.
7. Follow each trail, thread and connection until you’re exhausted. Then follow them some more. When you’re about to quit, follow them further.
8. Never think anything is impossible. But don’t delude yourself into thinking you have magical superpowers that can accomplish the impossible.
9. Through one thing, know many things.
Of course there are many more techniques we could add to your toolkit: sensory development, mapping routines, and mindfulness training. But these 9 principles could prove a useful start.
Is tracking really the most important skill? Like any good tracker, I’m eager for you to test it out and prove me wrong. But it’ll be hard. For that to happen, I’d have to see the song sparrow agree with you.
Note to parents: If you let kids develop the above skills of questioning and thoughtfulness and you may asking for trouble. Good trouble 😉
Tracking is the art and science of Paying Attention to the details, both large and small, and using this awareness to find hidden aspects of the world most people miss. Good Trackers can find a set of prints, human or animal, and follow them over any ground. Great Trackers can tell you what this means to health of their woodland, forest friends, and village.