TEACH!: Unit 4, Lesson 2.

Creatures of Southeastern Pennsylvania:

Who Goes There?
Discovering Tracks and Other Animal Signs

Objective:

The participant will be able to identify several common animal tracks and signs.

Supplies

  • Track identification sheet or field guide
  • Plastic sealant/shellac
  • Cardboard or plastic container
  • Scissors
  • Plaster of Paris
  • Water

Background

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.

  • Chewings and gnawings – Look under trees for chewed-on pinecones and nuts. Some birds and squirrels may have caused this.
  • Trimmed trees and nibbled tips – Deer often munch on the lower ranches of trees. Also, the tops of seedlings often become food for animals. This is called browsing. Look for teeth marks and the type of cut as well. Was it a clean cut or was the vegetation torn off? A clean cut at an angle lower to the ground indicates a rabbit, a torn off stem could indicate a deer.
  • Nuts – If nuts are found in places other than beneath the parent tree, they must have been carried there. Some jays and squirrels collect and store nuts a distance from the producing tree.
  • Tracks – These are footprints left by animals. You can often find  them in soft, muddy ground, in sandy places, or in the snow. Be sure to look at the track’s shape, size, depth, and pattern of the animal’s gait (the way it moves its feet). Experienced trackers can tell how old a track is and how fast the animal that made it was moving.
  • Scat – Scat is the polite term for animal droppings or feces. Take notice of what is in them: berries, fur, bone? This can tell you who left it. Also, the size, shape and location give you clues.
  • Urine stains – These marks are noticeable in the snow.
  • Feathers or fur – A single feather was probably just shed by a bird, but a whole pile of feathers and bones could mean that the bird was lunch for something else. A pile of fur and bones could also have been lunch. Can you find clues as to what was eaten or what ate it?
  • Rubbings or claw marks – Look for trees where deer have rubbed their antlers against the bark. Also, you can sometimes find bear-claw markings on the trunks of trees.
  • More animal signs – Shed antlers, parts of turtle shells, owl pellets, birds’ nests, wing marks in the snow, tunnels, worn out paths or trails (high traffic areas), and broken branches showing where animals have walked can all give you clues as to what kinds of animals were or are in the area and what they are doing.

Activity

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.

Resources

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.

*** You can rent a Track Pack with pre-made rubber animal tracks from the Minnesota Department of Natural ResourcesProject WILD. Visit http://seek.minnesotaee.org/ for details or to learn more about Project WILD go to www.mndnr.gov/projectwild/index.html.

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