Often when searching for wild animals – especially mammals – you never encounter a single one. This is particularly true if you are with a group of talkative people. Generally, wild animals avoid human contact and are long gone before you arrive. That is why it is important to learn how to identify basic signs that animals have left behind or learn to identify calls and sounds they make. Animal signs come in many forms; here are a few to look for.
One of the best ways to learn about animals is to get outside and look for animal signs. All animals have a home, and you can find signs of these homes by tracking. Tracking is a way of paying close attention to the signs around you and reading the landscape to determine what happened. Take a look at some of the features of common animal tracks. Keep in mind the size of the track in relation to the animal. Also, review some of the common animal signs. Then head outdoors to see if you can discover some tracks and signs on your own. The best place to look for tracks is in soft soil (along a river or after a rain), wet sand, or snow. When you find a track, take a close look. Note the kind of habitat it is in, the size, or if there are any other signs this animal may have left behind. These will help you to identify the track.
Use your senses to become a better tracker. Be quiet and still and listen for the sound of animals and birds. What are they saying? Are the birds squawking and sending out a warning signal? Is there movement of the brush as a deer passes through? Try using your nose to discover. Animals often leave their scent behind. (Porcupines smell like vinegar!) Your nose can also give you clues as to the kinds of vegetation in the area. Don’t be afraid to use your hands to feel the tracks left behind by animals. Run your hand over the spot where they gnawed at a tree seedling. Did they tear off the shoots or make a clean cut? Use your eyes to look above you in the sky, in the treetops, in bushes, under bushes, under leaves, and to all sides. Simply expanding your view will allow you to learn so much more.
You may also want to preserve a track by making a cast of it. Do this by removing loose soil and leaves from a track. Spray the track with a plastic sealant or shellac. Around the track put a two-inch wide strip of cardboard or an old plastic container (whipped cream) with the bottom cut out. Fill with plaster of Paris purchased from a hardware or craft store. Let dry, then carefully lift out and remove the ring. Brush or scrape off the dirt and then wash with damp cloth.
Sheldon, I. and T. Eder. 2000. Animal Tracks of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Lone Pine Publishing: Auburn, WA. 160 pp.
Rezendes, P. 1999. Tracking and the art of seeing: How to read animal tracks and sign. (2nd ed.) Harper Collins: New York. 336 pp.
For a pocket guide to animal tracks, visit https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2016/08/tm/tracks-guide.pdf . This guide was developed by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, but all of the animals on it can be found here in Pennsylvania.