Flipping pancakes with my 11-year old daughter Tasha on a cold December morning recently, we saw a group of wild turkeys outside pecking at the bittersweet berries along our stone wall. I grabbed my cup of coffee after breakfast and we headed out to watch them. We quickly found their three-toed tracks in the driveway, and we began following them through the snow. We traced their path backwards to figure out where the turkeys had come from.
We followed the tracks into the field beyond our driveway where we saw drag marks in the loose snow, left by their feathers. We crunched along through the soft snow, sun glinting off the crystalline surface. Across the field we went, following their looping path to the edge of the woods. We trudged into the trees where the tracks soon ended beneath a cluster of birch and pine. I asked Tasha where she thought the tracks went from here. She looked around for a nest or shelter on the ground. Then, finally, she tilted her head back.
"Up in the trees!" she called. They had spent the night safely roosted high above the ground, then, upon daybreak, had dropped down and started scavenging through the field until they found their favorite dining spot—the bittersweet near our house. Mystery solved.
Tracking with kids in the winter can be incredibly fun—not only learning about wildlife and their habits but actually solving mysteries—such as where the turkeys came from. Tracking is not just the identification of footprints. It is the art of reading all of the clues left behind by animals, to figure out what they were doing, where they had been, and where they were going. It is a mystery to be solved.
Tim Smith is a professional tracker who runs the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School in Maine. A modern-day mountain man and survival expert, he says that tracking is a game of finding clues to rule out certain species, narrowing down what it could be. "You're not always able to figure out what the animal you are tracking is, but you can usually figure out what it isn't," he says.
Smith recommends looking for the following types of clues:
- Prints: Look for size, claw marks, and depth. Look for the number of toes or toe pads. Then use a field guide to identify them.
- Feather marks. One of the most dazzling clues you can find—feather prints in a snowy field. This might be the track of some turkeys, or the full wing imprint of an owl or hawk that swooped down to grab a mouse or mole it heard through the snow.
- Gait patterns: Often the easiest way to identify an animal, the track will show parallel, diagonal, bounding, or galloping foot patterns. Field guides are also helpful here.
- Scat: Kids will get a kick out of breaking scat open to find what the creature has been eating. Just grab a stick and start breaking it apart.
- Browsing marks: Deer, moose, rabbits and others are forest browsers, constantly nibbling on twigs and branches as they walk. Deer only bite from the bottom and their dull teeth leave the ends of the twigs torn and rough. Rabbits make clean 45 degree cuts with their sharper teeth. In the springtime, look for rabbit chew 3 to 5 feet high. No, the rabbits don't get that big in New England—but it will show you where the snow came up to in the wintertime.
- Head out in the freshly fallen snow. The easiest and best time to track is usually following a 1- to 2-inch snowfall.
- Make a tracking plot in your backyard. In the spring, summer, or fall, simply rake a section of sand or soil, leaving it completely clear of all leaves and debris. Dig up the top few inches of soil, sift it, dry it and then lay it back down so you have a fine layer of sand and dust. Then put an apple core, a slice of meat, or simply a feather or dead mouse in the middle of the plot. Come back in the morning to find the prints of all your nocturnal visitors!
- Make a scavenger hunt. List animal tracks or different types of animal homes (nests, burrows, caves, hollow trees, etc.), then everyone set off to find them first! Be sure to leave animal homes undisturbed!
LEARN MOREAMC offers several guided animal tracking programs for adults and families. Visit activites.outdoors.org and enter the keyword "Tracking."
Stories in the Snow: A pro offers tips on reading winter tracks
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Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Ethan Hipple.
Photo by Jerry & Marcy Monkman.