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Tracking animals is a real adventure
We all love a mystery.
Perhaps that’s why tracking animals is so much fun. We want to know: Who made those prints in the snow? Who lives in that hole in the ground? Who left that tuft of fur?
Winter is a great time to learn to track Colorado wildlife. No matter the season, tracking is a fantastic way to get friends and family members of all ages and physical abilities out of the house and exploring.
"Parents complain their kids spend too much time inside watching TV, playing video games, posting on Facebook. This is a great way to get them out into our parks, with their friends or brothers and sisters, using their brains, their skills of observation, their imaginations,” said Nancy Stone Bernard, supervisor at the Fountain Creek Nature Center in south El Paso County.
Colorado Springs is an ideal place to begin your adventure, said John Koshak, watchable wildlife coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. It’s home to fox, coyote, bobcat, bighorn sheep, bear, deer, mountain lion and dozens of birds.
You don’t have to go far to begin your explorations. The Fountain Creek and Bear Creek nature centers offer programs that introduce kids to tracking as well as exhibits that explain the basics of investigating the signs animals leave behind, be it web, nest, footprint or poop.
“To start out, you’re looking for obvious signs that an animal has been near,” Bernard said.
Say you’ve found animal footprints in the dusty edge of the trail you’re hiking. Start to play detective. What is the overall shape of the print? Members of the dog family leave prints that are more oval than tracks left by members of the cat family, which are more rounded (as long as they are wide).
Are there claw or toenail prints? The toenails of a dog, whether a family pet or a fox, will leave a mark in the dirt, mud or snow. Generally, cats do not leave claw prints. If you see claws with a cat print, that feline might have been ready to pounce!
Did the animal walk on its toes like a deer, or flat on its feet like a human? Bear walk flat-footed. So do raccoons. Elk walk on their toes.
How many toe prints do you see? A red fox has four toes, a striped skunk has five.
Do you see evidence of front and rear feet? If so, do they look the same? A bear’s front and hind paws leave prints that are different in shape and size.
How large are the prints? If you do not have a ruler, use your cellphone, a coin or a key for comparison. That will help you determine if a print was left by a house cat, bobcat or mountain lion. (See information box to compile a “tracking kit.”)
Even if you cannot identify the animal that left the tracks, think about its story, Koshak said.
Did the animal leave the prints when it stopped to eat? Was it walking? Running? Heading to water?
When animals are moving fast, their stride — which can be measured in the distance between footprints — is longer than normal and the straddle — which can be measured in the width between left and right footprints — is narrower.
If the tracks are clear, look for foot placement. Some animals’ hind feet land in front of their front feet when they’re running.
Don’t forget to look above the ground, too. The bark removed from a tree trunk or branch might have been clawed off by a passing bear, rubbed off by a buck scratching his velvety antlers or gnawed off by a porcupine.
Walking along the trails at Fountain Creek Nature Center earlier this month, Koshak pointed to deer tracks crossing his path. A quick look revealed the direction of the deer’s travel — toward a group of trees. Observing a section of prints showed the deer likely had been startled but probably wasn’t in immediate danger; it was moving at a trot, not bounding away from the open grass.
“At first, that’s probably all you’ll want to know — or how long you can keep a kid’s attention,” Koshak said. “But you can learn more by putting your wildlife detective skills to work. You can look at a track and figure out whether it was made by a mule deer or a white tail deer.”
White tail deer walk in direct registry, meaning their hind feet step into the prints made by their front feet. If you’re following the trail of a mule deer, you’ll see prints left by all four feet. And a mule deer on the run will bound, and you’ll see the prints of its hind feet in front of the prints of its front feet.
Farther down the trail at Fountain Creek, Koshak used his observational skills and scientific thinking to determine who left dried scat next to the path.
“I see bits of rosehip or apple in there,” he said. “A little fur. I can use that to narrow down the animal who left it. I’ll make a note of the size; that gives me another clue. I’m thinking fox or skunk. The fur can be its own fur, ingested while grooming, or from prey.”
Pulling out a basic tracking guide, he quickly noted the size and shape of the scat and compared the information he had gathered to photos in the book.
All signs pointed to a fox.
“Tracking is something you perfect over a lifetime of practice, but you’ll learn more about the world around you and the animals that live in it the moment you start paying attention,” Koshak said.
More tracking basics
It’s easy to learn more about tracking animals in Colorado.
• Visit Fountain Creek or Bear Creek nature center and spend time exploring the exhibits on wildlife tracks.
• Attend one of Colorado’s annual festivals to learn more about specific animals — bighorn sheep, elk, snow geese, sandhill cranes, etc. See a list of festivals at the Parks and Wildlife website.
• Set a shallow box outside your home. Fill it with sand or mud and bait it with chunks of apple or bits of carrot. Leave it outside and check it periodically to see if any creatures have visited. Did they leave tracks? Nibble the food? What do the signs tell you?
• Play a hide-and-seek tracking game. Drag a rake along the ground, making a distinct mark for kids to follow. Hide and see if your kids can find you. Drag a stick behind you and see if they can track that mark. Can they find you by tracking your footprints?
Great local sites to see animal tracks
• Field guide (basic laminated brochure, Peterson guide, or one of many books)
• Magnifying glass
• Tape measure
• Small notebook
• Pen or pencil
• Binoculars or monoscope