Animal Signs & Tracking

Get out in the woods to hone your track identification skills

In the world of wilderness skills, there is almost always a natural progression of mastering one and then moving on to another. Each skill in succession is often a little more difficult than the last, or at least a little more detailed. With fire starting, you might begin by simply mastering the use of matches to get a campfire going, which may include doing so after three days of rain. For shelter building, beginning with a simple lean-to makes way for the more complicated A-frame, followed by an A-frame with an internal fire to keep you warm at night.

Moose.
Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo.

When you first start learning survival skills, you will likely begin with fire starting methods. Then you will add shelter building, which is often coupled with or followed by signal making. Soon you will become enamoured with wild plant identification. Put simply, your skills develop over time and the learning curve is long and slow. Eventually, animal tracking will become your obsession, with many hours of many days spent hiking in the woods or mountains or fields.

Spotting animal and birdlife takes being in their presence on many occasions. For spotting birds, it might be as simple as recognizing that hawks flap their wings more than eagles, who flap their wings more than vultures. For bears, it often comes down to recognizing the natural sheen and colour of their fur, versus staring at a rotten stump and thinking that it’s a black bear staring back at you.

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Often the motivation for animal tracking is hunting for a meal. However, there are lots of reasons to recognize and learn how to follow animal signs and tracks in the wild. It might be that they can lead you to water. It might be that you want to be aware when there’s a dangerous animal in the area. Perhaps you’re on a photography expedition. One such time for me was in India on a Survivorman location shoot. As I hiked up a dry riverbed, I came across a recent, and large, set of tiger tracks. Seeing these not-very-old tracks in the sand was a healthy reminder for me to be alert. But how did I know it was a tiger track and not a dog or an ungulate, such as a deer?

Often enough it’s easy to categorize animal tracks within their species: cats, canines (this includes bears), ungulates (hooved animals such as deer, moose or elk), rodents, birds and, finally, even insects. All the above may represent either food or danger or may indicate information about the ecosystem that you might need to know.

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Once you learn that, for example, cat’s claws are retractable, it will be easier to figure out if the print is a cougar or a wolf. Canine claws always stick out and therefore almost always leave a mark in the mud or sand or snow.

Remembering that snow melts throughout the day in the sunshine will alert me to the fact that the animal leaving behind a track might be much smaller than its track indicates. The snow melts and expands, and so does the small paw print that was made in it the night before. This, of course, brings into focus understanding when a track was made and there are several indicators for this. Does the track seem to have been melted by the sun? Are there any leaves or fallen debris resting inside the track? If it’s in mud, is the mud dry and hard? What signs of the animal exist right beside or around the track, such as branches that are broken off or bent or perhaps leaves that have been nibbled off? There is only a partial story told in the imprint of a single animal track. Beside or around this one track in the mud may be all kinds of accomplice signs completing the story for the observant bush wonderer.

Simple differences make identifying an animal type easy within a given species. Moose hoofprints are very heart shaped. Elk hoofprints almost always leave behind markings from their dew claws. Deer hoofprints are much smaller and shaped like an arrowhead. When it comes to canines, it can be very tough at times to tell the difference between a wolf and a domestic dog, so you have to broaden your view and take the whole picture into account when trying to figure it out. You have to become a wilderness detective and answer some questions. Are you anywhere near human settlement? When you step back and look at the line of tracks (several tracks leading somewhere), are they in a determined straight line or are they meandering all over the place? Wolves don’t have time to frolic and run about, so they tend to walk straight to where they’re headed, maybe leaving a mark here and there by urinating on a stump or bush. Dogs lollygag all over the place, so large, meandering tracks are more likely a big dog than a wolf. And quite likely something to be much more leery of than a wolf!

One of my favourite tricks with animal tracks is figuring out how big their maker is. It’s quite simple and often accurate. You try to find all four paws showing clearly as tracks on the ground. You take your hand and put it beside the first and third track. Now, assuming you know what kind of animal it is, you trace imaginary lines in the air with your hands moving upwards in how big you think the canine or cat might be based on the placement of its first and third paw prints. Simply outline the shape of the animal. Try it at home with your dog and your cat.

Further signs to understand are the animal’s habits, such as how they go poop in the woods. Ungulates go wherever they please so there’s not much rhyme or reason to finding big piles of moose droppings. Cats and canines, on the other hand, pee and poop with a purpose. It’s either to mark its territory or to seek out a mate or possibly to warn off an intruder. Bears scratch trees and the higher up they scratch, the bigger the bear will be. However, ungulates rub trees with their antlers, so being able to determine if the markings are rubbings versus scratches helps you to know if you are in bear territory or there’s a big bull moose nearby. Either way, it’s time to move on.

This article was featured in the BC Outdoors March/April 2021 issue. Order it from our Shopify store now (while supplies last) or subscribe to our magazine to keep up-to-date with all of the latest issues!

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