I can still remember the time when I had to study to identify animal poop for one of my subjects. We started from tiny animals such as a mouse up to larger ones which include rhinos.
We then had to scan a location and the set some traps (the traps did not harm the animal). The next morning we had to go and visit the traps to see if we caught something. The first person to find something would win a bottle of brandy.
All I can say is that all 9 of us had to be happy with only drinking water that evening. Enough about me, let’s see what is in store within this article.
Today, I am going to talk about tracking. I am going to cover every single aspect of tracking that you think off such as all the signs. I am going to include some good locations that you should start with, footprints, dropping analysis and also how to follow the trail of an animal.
The tools that you might need for tracking
Some of the tools in this section are optional and will not limit your ability to track an animal effectively. However, these tools will help you and make you more efficient at tracking.
1. Measuring tape
A measuring tape is used to measure the size of the footprint. It can also be used to measure the width of the trail and even the distance between the prints.All of this information will be helpful in determining which type and species of animal you are dealing with.
You can use a notebook to record data. Sometimes you can be, and it is not a bad idea to make notes of everything that you found. You can create notes on the location of the prints, the type of animal or the species and also everything else that you encountered regarding the signs.
You can either use a camera or your smartphone to take pictures. You can take photos of the droppings, the footprints and also other evidence that you found.
Over time the evidence will disappear, and it will be better to have it all recorded on your phone. This evidence can also help you to relocate the last series of prints once you have lost the trail.
4. Field guide
A Field guide can either be a person that knows the surrounding areas very well or a book that will guide you in linking the signs to the right animal accurately.
5. Tracking apps
You also have access to tracking apps that will allow you to identify the animal related to a footprint. Some of these apps are also location dependent such as the iTrack Africa which covers animals in Africa.
Other apps also include iNaturalist and MyNatureApps which are very useful at identifying the signs left by animals.
When mentioning ecological signs, I am referring to the bigger picture. This picture will include the environment in which these animals will interact. If you can know the reason why animals are in a specific location, then it will become easier to spot the signs left by them.
1. Travel routes
Animals are not as different as us regarding travel routes. Animals also tend to travel the easiest and shortest path to their destination. Battered vegetation or even no vegetation can also identify these trails. Animals travel these routes on a daily basis.
2. Track traps
Track traps are areas within a habitat where it is easier to spot tracks or footprints of an animal. A Track trap can either be natural or humanmade and can consist of roads, river banks or wet soil. You can also create your own track trap to catch the footprint of an animal.
Here is how to make a track trap:
3. Animal sleeping areas
The sleeping areas are where the animals tend to sleep which is a goldmine for when you want to spot animals. It is easy to spot sleeping areas especially if you are familiar with the habits of a specific animal.
Larger animals tend to rest on the ground while smaller ones such as rabbits like to dig burrows. If you found burrows, you can look for droppings and footprints which will help you to determine which animal is responsible for the hole.
Larger animals such as deer also have sleeping areas and can be identified by battered vegetation or exposed areas. You can also look at signs such as droppings and footprints to identify the animal. Deer also tend to sleep in groups which will make this easier.
4. Feeding areas
Feeding areas are also species-specific. For herbivores, you need to look out for grassy planes where they can feed. It is also not that hard to spot grass that was eaten short. For herbivores, you also want to look for grass diversity.
The more diverse the grass, the better the ecology of a specific habitat which will provide more food during all four seasons. Herbivores also need cover against the sun or predators such as bushes or large trees.
You can also make your feeding area with the help of molasses blocks. Deer love the sweet taste of molasses and will frequently visit the area to get some of that molasses.
For tracking carnivores, you want to look for rodents and bones. Rodents are the most common type of food available for predators such as Jackal and large or small cats. If you found a skeleton or the corpse of an animal, then you are on the right track especially if it is still fresh
The trick here is to know the habits and diet of the animal that you want to track as each of the species are different.
5. Drinking locations
Drinking locations such as water holes, dams or rivers are great places to start from. All animals need water while herbivores such as deer can get a large portion of the water from the grass that they eat.
The amount of water in the grass will also depend on the season as winter grass has less moisture than summer grass. The soil around waterholes are even softer and can be a great place to find footprints or tracks.
Leftover signs and their meaning
Animals will almost always leave signs behind which will make it easier for you to identify and then to track them. Let’s start with the easiest of all the signs which will be animal tracks.
1. Analyzing the footprint
It can be effortless to classify a specific species of animal if you know how to read their tracks. In this section, I will guide you through the process of how to identify an animal by studying their footprints.Let’s start with the number of toes
a) The number of toes
b) Measuring the track to get the foot size
This is where the measuring tape will come into play. Most people like to use a tape that is in the metric system, but for this example, I am going to use inches.
There is a high correlation between the size of the hoof or foot of an animal and its size. This information can be beneficial at getting more data on the animal that you are tracking.
First, you want to start by measuring the width of the print. From there you want to start by placing the measuring tape over the outside edge of one of the animal’s toes and then measuring it from the toe that is far left to the outer side of the toe that is far right.
Remember to look at the track straight down and not from an angle. This tip will increase the accuracy of your measurement.
Next, you want to measure the length of the print. From the front of the paw, you want to include the nail marks (if it is visible) and also the backside of the heel.
c) Are claw marks present?
Depending on the number of toes visible, if you claw marks in the footprint, then it is almost definitely those of a canine. An interesting fact is that feline animals will not show claw marks on their prints.
The reason for this is that cats tend to keep their nails inside of their toes and only pull them out to catch their prey. Claw marks are one of the ways to identify the prints from a dog to that of a cat.
2. Analyzing the footprint pattern
If you are still not 100% sure about accurately identifying an animal just by looking at its footprint, then you can also analyze the track pattern. The track pattern will tell you how the animal is walking or running.
Each species of animal will have the same type of framework or skeleton structure which will allow it to have the same distinct kind of walk. Let’s start with diagonal walkers:
a) Diagonal walkers
The animals that fall under this category are all canines, felines, deer, elk, and moose. This type of pattern will happen when the opposite front and rear limbs move at the same time.
As a result, the rear limbs will step into the track of their front limbs.
Pacers are animals that have a wide body. Animals in this category can include the bear, raccoon, badger, and beaver. This style of walking will result in both limbs on one side of the body will move at the same time.
The front and the rear prints will also be located next to each other.
c) Bound pattern
Bound walkers typically refer to the weasel family. They do this by reaching out with their front legs, and then they bring their rear legs forward just behind their front legs.
This specific pattern is also rectangular.
Most rabbits, hares, and rodents will fall into this category. Gallopers will push off with their rear limbs and then hit the ground with their back legs.
They will then bring their back feet all the way through. When looking at the tracks, you will notice that the front feet will be behind the back feet.
Many animals will leave droppings (scat or dung) in their area for various reasons while some of them do this to mark their territory which can turn to our favor. If you could find droppings of an animal in an area, then it is very likely for that animal to be in that area.
a) The freshness of the scat
If the droppings are still wet and soft, then you can be confident that the animal that left it there is close. If the dropping is still warm in temperature, then you better take cover because it is less than one minute old.
If you come across dried and hardened scat, then it is old, and the animal is long gone.
b) The content of the dropping
The content of the dropping will indicate the diet of the animal and can also help in identifying it. The content will also differ with the season. The components that you will see in the scat will most likely be the undigestible material such as insoluble fiber and insect casings.
Predator dropping might also include bone or fur which is an indication that they have eaten an animal carcass.
c) The shape and size of the scat
It is important to note that herbivores such as deer or elk will leave their dung in the form of pellets. These pellets will be round or oval in shape and will in some cases have a nipple at the end.
It is also important to note that dried pellets are smaller than wet (fresh) pellets because of the moisture content. Larger herbivores will also have larger pellets than their smaller cousins.
Wild canine (fox or jackal) droppings, on the other hand, will be different than that of herbivores. They will not have small pellets, but droppings will rather be larger and twisted with a taper at the end.
The reason why their droppings are twisted is to protect their digestive system from sharp bones. This peristaltic action covers the sharp edges of the bones with feces and in turn, protect the gut lining from puncturing.
You will also notice that the droppings will be full of hair which they got from their prey. The droppings of feline cats will look similar to that of canine but will not be twisted. The reasoning behind this is that cats do not eat bones but rather lick the meat off the bone with the help of its rough tongue.
d) The smell of the dropping
The smell is also an indication between that of a herbivore and carnivore. The scent of the droppings from carnivores will be much stronger than that of herbivores.
The reason behind this is because of the high protein content which gives of urea in the digestive tract and urine. This is also why cat urine is so pungent. The droppings from herbivores will have an earthy smell that is not as pungent.
4. Rubbed dirt
Animals such as deer are not gifted with arms such as us to scratch their back for when it aches. The only option they do have is to scratch their back against the trunk of a tree.
If they had fresh mud or dirt on their body, then some of it will remain on the bark of the tree. You can also look at how fresh the mud is on the tree to determine the distance of the animal that left it there.
When deer shed, they will also vigorously rub their body against a tree. Sometimes it can be so aggressive that the deer will remove the bark off the tree.
5. Hair findings
It is also possible to find strands of hair that got stuck on a tree or a branch somewhere which can indicate the presence of an animal. Especially when animals shed, they will rub their bodies against trees and other sturdy objects.
It can be hard to link the strand of hair to a specific animal which gives minimal information about the animal.
6. Depressed vegetation
Depressed vegetation is most likely the resting place of an animal. Once you found a resting spot, you can then try to set up a popup blind to spot the animal.
You can also look at the scat and footprints in around the resting place to identify the animal. It is also easy to guess the size of the animal just by looking at the surface area covered by the depressed vegetation.
The art of Trailing
The art of trailing comes into play once you have identified an animal and you are now planning to follow the trail. It is also essential to go over the previous sections on the signs on how to get a starting point and also to identify the animal.
1. Know your animal first
It is imperative to know everything you can about the animal that you are planning to track. You need to know about all of the signs and also the behavior of the animal. You need to keep in mind that seasons will also play a role.
You can look into behaviors such as do they live in herds, do they make burrows or sleep on the ground, what is their diet, breeding season, are they good at catching your scent, the type of habitat they prefer, can they climb trees, etc.
2. Best time to trail
The best time of the day to follow the trail of an animal is either early morning or late in the afternoon. The reason for this is that animals are more active during those times.
During the day animals tend to rest because of the heat. Animals also tend to be seen more often at waterholes early morning than during the day.
3. Safety aspects
This section is only valid for the type of animal that you are following or if your location is known to be the habitat of predators. You should be very careful of animals such as bears, cougars and even large elk males that can attack you on sight.
Even though elk is not an aggressive animal, it is better to be safe than sorry. What you can do is to travel with a firearm or at least a bottle of pepper spray.
4. Use a stick and tissue paper
The stick will be used to mark the last footprint that you saw. You can also point the direction of the trail with your stick to get a better idea of the course that you must follow.
You can also use biodegradable toilet paper to mark the trail so that you do not lose it. Only take a small sheet of toilet paper and attach it to a tree branch or a bush. This way you can easily find the last location of the animal that you followed.
5. Take note of the wind direction
Some animals have a keen sense of smell and will quickly pick up your scent if you are not careful. One of the ways to avoid detection is to walk against the wind and not along with it.
This way, the wind will blow your scent away from the animal that you are tracking and not towards it.
6. Be as stealthy as possible
It is critical to incorporate stealth into your movement especially if the animals are close. If you found wet or warm droppings, then the animal is very close, and you need to exercise extreme caution.
Be as silent as possible, and it is better to whisper instead of talking. You should also try to make yourself as small as possible if you can. It is also important not to wear bright colors such as yellow or red. Try wearing camo or khaki colors which will blend into the environment.
7. What to do if you have lost the trail
The best thing that you can do after losing the trail is to go back to the previous sign such as a footprint or dropping. You should also mark the last print with a stick or a piece of toilet paper.
Once you have recovered the last pair of footprints in the trail, you should take a look around your environment. What most trackers will do in this case is to walk in a half-moon form around the last sign that you got.
They will start very narrow and then go broader once they spot the next pair of footprints needed to continue the trail.
8. Using scent dogs
If you are a lazy tracker, then you can make the use of scent dogs. With the help of scent dogs, you can locate the animal quicker. I would personally prefer scent dogs if you have wounded an animal during a hunting trip.
It is then better to find the animal as fast as possible as you do not want the animal to suffer from a bullet wound. I also have a section on hunting dogs that will go over all of them.
Hopefully, you learned something today. You should always sharpen your skills everytime you are out in the field. Tracking an animal is not as hard as most people think. With the right knowledge, you can go far.