Every track tells a story

During a recent overnight snowfall in my city, a bird settled on the sidewalk outside my house while I was asleep. A cat came around the side of the house, saw the bird, crept up, and pounced. But the bird got away, and the cat walked off empty-handed (or empty-pawed).

I didn't get to see any of this happen, but the whole story was there in my yard when I woke up. It was "written" in the tracks in the snow.

It was a fairly easy story to read just by looking at the prints in the snow. I recognized the paw prints of a cat. I could see where it had walked, where it had stopped, and where it had sprung. A big indentation in the snow at the end of its trail, surrounded by bird tracks, showed where the bird had been and where the cat had landed when it pounced. Judging by the lack of feathers or disturbed snow in the area, the bird flew away. Its tracks disappeared when it took to the air, and the cat's tracks continued to walk away from my yard.

Back when people had to hunt for food, tracking game animals was an important skill. Today many people learn tracking for fun or study. They enjoy following the trail of a fox to try to get a glimpse of it. Or perhaps they're researching a specific type of animal. You can learn to track, too.

"You don't necessarily see all the animals that are in your neighborhood," says Richard Curtis, "but they're around." Mr. Curtis is director of the Outdoor Action program at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. "The tracks will be there after the animals have gone," he says, "and it's lots of fun and challenging to look for clues about them in their tracks."

Snow can make tracking both easier and harder. It's easier to track small animals in the snow, such as birds or mice. They are too lightweight to leave clear tracks on hard ground, but a light snowfall makes a good tracking surface.

But a soft snow will also make it harder to tell the difference between the tracks of a cat or a dog of about the same size, because this type of snow makes it hard to distinguish details of a single track.

In general, though snow makes it easier to follow an animal's trail, so tracking an animal in the snow is a good way to begin to learn to track. "Start with the big picture," Curtis says. Where does the trail go? How many animals are involved? Do the tracks go straight or wander around?

Once you have the big picture, look more closely.

Check the track to see which direction the animal was heading and what kind of animal made it. You may be surprised at what you can learn about the things that go on when you're not looking.

Expert trackers can learn to observe more than footprints. When tracking animals in fields and forests, they look for paths used by many animals. They examine shrubs or tree trunks to see if any animals rubbed or scratched themselves there, leaving pieces of fur. Some animals will claw a tree trunk as a warning or an invitation to other animals. Flattened areas in a grassy meadow may show where an animal rested or slept. Some animals, such as beavers, gnaw on nuts or fallen branches. A bird's feather may be snagged on a branch.

Squirrels or chipmunks leave nutshells behind. In the early morning of a sunny spring or summer day, the dew on the ground makes everything shiny. If an animal crosses the grass, it wipes away the dew. Now that area will look duller than the surrounding grass. All animals leave droppings that can yield revealing clues. Good trackers learn to notice a wide variety of indicators about animals and their behavior.

Expert trackers also know that they have to be careful about encountering the animals in person.

Most animals won't hurt the trackers, but people can harm the animals even when they aren't trying to. Especially in winter, animals need all their strength to survive. If you startle an animal away from its young, it may abandon them.

Or it may exhaust itself running away from you and have little energy left to hunt for food. So trackers follow trails carefully and wisely. They learn to be clever detectives.

Trackers start by figuring out where they are most likely to find the animals they are looking for. Herbivores (animals that eat vegetation) will hang out near their food supply - brush and grass. They stay in places where they can hide from predators - among rocks, tall grass, or in ground that can support safe burrows. Predators also show up in these herbivore hangouts when they are hunting.

You'd think that a watering hole would be a good place to find animals. You will see predators there, but most herbivores avoid watering holes. They get their water from dew and from the plants they eat.

In cities, sources of food might be different. Birds will be drawn to feeders put out by humans. Cats and dogs might check out sites where garbage is left out. Squirrels raid bird feeders if the food is to their liking. You will also find squirrels near trees that produce nuts.

Look around your neighborhood, and think like an animal. What food sources do you see? That will give you places to start looking for tracks.

The tracks will also tell you if the animal was walking, hopping, trotting, or galloping. Each animal has its own way of putting two or four feet down when it moves along the ground.

Just as your steps are farther apart when you run, running animals leave footprints that are farther apart. Some animals plant their feet in more of a straight line as they travel faster. With a little practice, you can learn to "read" many of the kinds of clues an animal leaves behind.

In the winter, a fresh overnight snowfall should give you plenty of opportunities to find animal tracks. Then keep your eyes open and your mind working. You'll be surprised at how much you can find out.

On the trail of more information

Books

Crinkleroot's Book of Animal Tracking by Jim Arnosky (Bradbury Press, 1989). Crinkleroot explores the clues that tell him about animals of the wilderness. Grades 3-6.

Big Tracks, Little Tracks: Following Animal Prints by Millicent Ellis Selsam (HarperCollins, 1999). Be a nature detective by following the tracks and odors that tell you which animals have passed through an area. Grades 2-5.

Tracking & the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes (HarperPerennial, 1999). This well-illustrated book covers a wide range of North American animals. All ages.

Websites

www.princeton.edu/~oa/nature/tracking.shtml The 'Outdoor Action Guide to Animal Tracking' includes descriptions of the many signs that tell you where an animal has been, including prints.

www.sesameworkshop.org/parents/activity/article.php?contentId=14966 The Sesame Street animal tracking activity explains how to set up a site for study and then look for small animal tracks at the site.

Watching from space

Have you ever seen geese flying and wondered where they were going? Until recently, it was hard to figure out where migrating creatures went. Today, small electronic tracking devices attached to a few animals can track a migrating group.

Now astronauts and junior-high school students are getting into the act, too.

Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk flew on a space shuttle in 1996. Two years ago, he was reading about an endangered species and realized that space flight and technology could help. "Almost every astronaut looks out the window," he says, "and can't help seeing how beautiful and how fragile our world is."

Today, Thirsk's Space for Species project involves junior-high students using technology to map the migrations of polar bears, caribou, peregrine falcons, and leatherback sea turtles. The program uses satellite telemetry, remote sensing, astronaut observations, and weather satellites to gain a large-scale view of the animals' lifestyles and patterns of movement. Students keep tracking journals and create maps based on the data.

The program is open to students worldwide. Go to: www.spaceforspecies.ca

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