We’ve collaborated with the Winter Wildlands Alliance to bring you this virtual field trip all about animal tracks! Watch the video below to learn more about looking for tracks this winter and enjoy the accompanying activities put together by Winter Wildlands for their virtual SnowSchool.
Thanks to Nathan Chavarria and Danielle Martinez for helping us make this video!
Follow these steps to take this virtual field trip!
We are exploring scat and tracks in today’s Take It Outside post. Learn how you can get started identifying tracks, scat, and other animal signs when hiking on our trails in today’s lesson. We’d love to see what you find while exploring the outdoors today!
Join Bob Walker today at 10 AM on the Los Alamos Nature Center’s wildlife observation camera livestream to see what birds and other critters are visiting the nature center. Tune into the livestream here.
Wildlife biologist and PEEC’s Field Science Specialist Mariana Rivera Freeman shares some tips on looking at scat, tracks, and other animal signs while out on the trails. Check out today’s blog post here.
Have each person in your family choose one or two types of animal scat. Make the animal scat from playdough or mud balls, matching shape and size. Go on a walk to collect add-ins for your scat. Some ideas:
Dried crabapples, rosehips, and juniper berries
Grass and other small plants
Small twigs to represent bones
Pussy willows, other tree buds, or dried grass to represent fur
Small seeds or shiny rocks to represent insect parts
Once the scat is finished, line them all up for a mystery challenge. Have each family member guess what animal each type of scat came from. We definitely want to see pictures of your homemade scat, so share them with us on Facebook or Instagram, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scat can tell us who was in an area and also what they ate. Go on a hike and look for scat! How many of these can you find? Based on what you find, what types of food are animals eating in your area?
Scat containing berries or fruit
Scat containing grass or other plants
Scat containing fur or bones
Scat containing insect parts
Remember that all scat contains bacteria, so don’t touch it with your fingers (use a stick!) and wash your hands when you get home. Stay away from dog poop, which is often very uniform in texture and lacks recognizable food items, since most domestic dogs eat processed dog food. Remember to always clean up your own dog’s poop when out on the trail!
Look for signs of wildlife on your walk! Look for:
Animal burrows or nests
Scratch or peck marks on trees or in the ground
Animal middens (piles of food waste, like pinecone bracts)
Can you identify any of the creatures they came from? You can use our downloadable scat and track guide, our online Track Guide, or the other resources listed below to help you identify the signs. Let us know what interesting things you find out there today!
NatureTracking.com provides a nice resource to start learning about tracks, scat, and other signs of mammals, insects, birds, and reptiles and amphibians. They also created an app called iTrack Wildlife. The free version only contains information on eight species, but includes some of our local animals like American Beavers, Black Bears, Mule Deers, and Northern Raccoons. There are also several paid versions that contain larger track libraries.
If you’ve been hitting the trails as much as I have lately, you’ve likely come across a lot of animal scat, tracks, and trails. Collectively, we call these spoor, or signs. It can be a fun exercise to search for and follow animal signs when you’re exploring the outdoors, and you can learn much from these little (or sometimes big) calling cards our wild neighbors leave behind. Not only can you determine what species of animal you’re looking at, but also which direction the animal was going, how quickly it was moving, whether it was alone or with company, and, with scat, what the animal likes to eat.
Identifying tracks in the wild doesn’t require many tools, gladly. Keeping a track and scat guide in your pocket is a quick and sure way to identify signs, but you needn’t carry books with you as long as you have some way to capture an image of the track, and a ruler or other item for scale. If you don’t have a camera, you can bring your nature journal or scrap paper to capture the likeness of a track or scat — the way naturalists have done for centuries!
No image is complete without scale, as it’s impossible to determine the exact size of a track without it. Hence the measuring tool. You can use a small ruler to get immediate measurements, or you can improvise and use something that can be measured later. Coins work great for this purpose, as well as keys, pencils, bobby pins, mostly anything. A word of warning, however! Be careful in the case of scat not to drop your measuring tool into the poop! I offer this great wisdom from personal experience.
Now that you have your equipment, you’re ready to do some detective work. Let’s start with tracks.
Every wild animal has its own unique footprint, and defining the shape of that print (which we call a track) is usually the easiest way to identify species. Snow and mud are best for this. But in the presence of an ill-defined track (which is almost always the case), you can also turn to size to further pinpoint species. This is why a measuring tool is so important! A mule deer track, for example, won’t be larger than 3¼” long; in contrast to an elk track, which can measure up to 4¾” long.
If you’re lucky enough to find a trail of tracks and you happen to have measuring tape, or you simply enjoy hiking with a yardstick, measuring the stride of an animal can also help differentiate species. Stride is measured from the heel of one foot to the heel of the next foot in the trail. A mule deer’s stride (the distance between prints) will typically be 24”, for example, while an elk’s stride can be double that length. The animal must have been ambling, however, for you to measure precise strides.
If it’s your lucky day, you may find some scat in the trail. This is our much-dignified word for animal poop. Whether with tracks or without, you can use the shape, size, and contents of scat to differentiate wild species. This is especially true of mammals, whose diets are more widely varied.
Shape is perhaps the most important consideration when it comes to scat. You’ve likely come upon piles of poop pellets on the trails, for example. These pellets can be round or oval, they can be piled like pebbles or squashed in a clump. Regardless, if you find pellets you are looking at rabbit, deer, elk, or even bighorn sheep.
Size and ingredients of the scat are good determinants as well, though size and diet differences between juveniles and adults of the same species can cause some confusion. But your measuring tool will come in handy again if you can’t quite decide how small or big the scat is. Fox and coyote poop can look a lot alike, for example. Both animals have tubular scat that usually tapers at the end, and both may have fur and berries or other components of an omnivorous diet. Coyote scat, however, can reach 4” long; while fox scat is generally no longer than 2”.
Whether you’ve found a gooey dinner-plate sized dropping (likely a bear) or a palm-size pile of tiny pellets (likely a rabbit), there’s one rule you must always follow! Never touch the scat with bare hands. But do take a twig and poke at that poop, for investigative purposes of course!
A Last Thought
If after all your measurements and detective work, you’re still not sure what animal you’re tracking, knowing a little about behavior and ecology (an animal’s relationship with its environment) can be a huge help.
For example, squirrel tracks typically lead from tree to tree, and under or along logs. You’re more likely to find elk tracks in a grassland than deer. You may look around and see claw marks where a bear scraped a tree. Remember to look up and around, too, and you may spot signs you’ve never noticed before!