Nature detective: Honing wildlife tracking skills

They were strategically left on the sandy side of a shady creek bank when Daddy first spied them. “You’re the wildlife person,” he said. “What kind of tracks are those?”

I slowly stood up in my muddy stirrups, peering off the side of my sleepy mare trying not to disrupt her preferred Boggles Creek stance. The tracks in question appeared as four widely-spaced, tiny hand prints with claw marks and a strange line between.

After mentally ruling out all forms of regular creek-visiting rodents and snakes, I came to the conclusion that it had to be a tail-dragging reptile of some kind—probably a turtle. This little guy had discovered what the resident deer, turkeys, beavers and other forest critters already knew—this creek was the best source of clean water in all of Boggles Creek swamp.

Whether you’re eight or 80, identifying wildlife tracks is one of the most rewarding experiences in which a nature-lover can participate. You become a detective, searching for clues as to what woodland inhabitant left its calling card. If you look more closely, you can also gain some insight into its more baffling behaviors.

Whether your desire for dinner drives your quest for such knowledge or you’re simply curious to know more about the forest residents’ daily doings, the intelligence you receive is directly proportional to the time you spend in observation of detail.

If you spend enough time in the woods to know who calls them home, you can use your mental natural rolodex to name the guilty party. Still, species identification is just the first clue in solving forest mysteries.

Track location will give you an immediate idea of travel routes and vice versa. Most wildlife will use the path of least resistance to reach their intended destination, whether it’s the best water source or their favorite feeding spot. These created roadway systems are not the preferred route though when being chased by a predator; an obscure path increases one’s chances of survival.

Locomotion tells a truth

Animal locomotion is another intriguing truth that can be extracted from track inspection. The speed continuum of woodland creatures ranges from stalking to slow walking to walking to trotting to bounding to loping to galloping.

Diagonal walking occurs when the animal moves the opposite sides of the body at the same time. For mammals such as deer, canines and felines, the length of the body is correctly proportional to the height of the animal. Trotting differs from walking in that the whole body is lifted off the ground at one point.

When the animal moves both limbs on the right side and then both limbs on the left side, a waddling gait occurs. Thick-bodied animals with very short legs employ this method: bears, raccoons, skunks, opossums, beavers, muskrats and porcupines.

Bounding takes place when the animal’s front feet reach out together and the hind feet move together in a pair, landing just behind the front prints. This movement characterizes weasels, mink, and otters whose legs are very short compared to their bodies.

Gallop walkers reach out with their front feet together and then the hind feet land to either side or ahead of the front feet. This locomotion is typical of mammals with hind legs longer than their front legs: squirrels, rabbits and some rodents.

An experienced tracker can even determine the sex of certain mammals. For example, diagonal walkers such as male and female deer have different bone structures. Does possess a pelvic girdle that is larger than the shoulder girdle in order to support birthing. In bucks, the shoulder girdle is larger than the pelvic girdle to support antler development. To determine sex, examine the placement of both front and rear tracks. If the rear track lies to the inside of the front track, the track belongs to a buck. If the rear track lies to the outside, the track belongs to a doe.

Reading tracks not only increases your awareness of the motivations behind animal actions, it also strengthens your connection to nature. The wonderful world of woodland wildlife doesn’t have to be such a secret. By taking the time to gather the right evidence, anyone can be a savvy track sleuth.

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