Studying prints left by animals is an ancient activity that was first practiced by those who depended on hunting and gathering for survival. But animal tracking is also a chance for your child to be a detective, to solve a mystery, and unravel a great story.
Tracking is an excellent way for your child to learn about wildlife and ecology as the art of tracking consists of answering such questions as: Why would an animal be in any given area? When did an animal leave its sign? Where did the animal go? Where did it come from?
Many children don’t realize just how many animals visit their backyard, local park or school grounds during the day or night. Helping them learn to look for and identify animal tracks is an excellent way to teach them about the natural world that surrounds us but isn't always on display. Tracking is something that you learn by doing so encourage your child to get out there and start to look for tracks!
Where to look
Animal tracks are easiest to find in mud, soft garden soil, sand, and snow. A great place to look for tracks is near a bird feeder. Birds sometimes hop in the snow under the feeder. Squirrels, mice and voles visit too, often eating the seeds that have fallen to the ground.
How to ID tracks
When your child finds tracks, ask them to study the shape of each footprint to help identify it. They should also look for toe marks. The toes point the way the animal was going so follow the tracks to see where they lead. They may reveal an animal searching for food, perhaps even following another animal.
Suggest that your child makes drawings of the tracks in their field journal, and record when and where they saw them.
There are many different field guides to winter tracks. They can be a big help as you get better at studying tracks and want to learn more. You can find ID cards, resources or pocket guides to help identify the tracks your child finds online or in bookshops, many are free. The best approach is to check in with your local parks department or Audubon Society as they will have the best references for the local critters you're likely to come across.
Animal tracks are easiest to find in mud, soft garden soil, sand, and snow.
Track early in the morning or late in the day when shadows make prints easier to see.
Study the ground closely. Get down on your hands and knees. You may wish to make a sketch.
Measure the length and width of several prints. On many mammals the front feet will be larger since they support more of the animal’s weight.
Measure the stride (length between prints) and the straddle (width between prints), this can give you an idea of how quickly the animal was moving.
Look for a heel, count the number of toes and look for any claw marks.
Follow the tracks and note any patterns. Where do they like to hang out in your backyard?
Do not disturb! If the tracks lead to den or resting place, respect your backyard friend and do not disturb!
More fun with tracks
It's also fun to follow any tracks you find and try to figure out what the animal was doing. Follow their trails through wild habitats and discover different activities they might be engaging in. From feeding areas to bedding or roosting sites, underground shelters, interactions with other animals and more, you'll soon discover many secrets of their winter world.
Don’t overlook "angel prints" left behind by winter birds. These are created by the wings of birds of many types taking off from the ground, or in the case of birds of prey, by the birds as they plunge into the snow to capture voles, mice, rabbits and other prey.
Whether you are tracking in your backyard, on a snow-covered forest path or along a beach, tracking is a great way for your child to put their observation skills to use!