Animal Tracking

A track trap we laid to capture chipmunk tracks. We got some mice, too. No one wanted our peanuts–the chipmunk actually hopped over them. These critters had an advanced palette, preferring locally sourced pine nuts from the pinon pines. Photo courtesy of one of my classmates, Kurt Thompson.

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

I just returned from an amazing five-day sojourn in the mountains, at the Windy Springs Preserve, in which I learned the basics of animal tracking from a pair of wonderful teachers, Jim Lowery and Mary Brooks of Earth Skills.

Tracking is the kind of skill that you can easily spend a lifetime, or two, developing. Yet it is also possible, with good teachers, for even a neophite like me to pick up a working knowledge of the art over a couple of days. By the end of the class, I was able spend an enthralling hour tracking a cottontail through a maze of sagebrush–all by myself.  Over the course of the class, I was fortunate enough to see the tracks of deer, bobcats, bears, coyotes, cottontails, jack rabbits, grey squirrels, chipmunks, kangaroo rats, foxes, mice, snakes, horned toads, lizards and beetles. We also got to practice tracking people, which is a lot of fun.

One thing I particularly appreciated about this class was that Jim and Mary encourage you to use your intuition as well as the “hard skills” of print identification, precise measurement, gait recognition, animal behavior, etc. For me, this was rewarding–and intriguing. It took tracking out of a purely left-brain zone, into a place of deep connection with both the animal and the landscape.

You can down load a free pdf on tracking basics from their website.

Tracking and Gardening

Now that I’m home, it strikes me that some of these skills I learned could be useful in the garden. Most anybody with a garden has had a moment when they wonder, “Just what kind of critter is digging holes in my beds?” or “Who is eating my cilantro down to nubs?” With my new knowledge set, I can answer these questions by setting up a track trap.

A track trap is an area of soil smoothed flat to capture animal tracks. In this class we used two methods: one was to drag a big, flat sack full of dirt (for weight) across stretches of open ground to smooth and compress the soil. When made in the evening, these clear spaces catch the prints of any animals that come through overnight or in the early morning. The results the next day were often spectacular–a clean, written record of the night’s activities. You may have seen this type of trap occur naturally on the bank of lake, or on a beach, or on a clean stretch of ground after a rain.

The other type of trap made by dusting a thin layer of dry clay on the rough side of a particleboard sheet, and then arching a piece of something flexible, like thin metal sheeting, over the board to protect the clay bed from wind, birds etc. If positioned correctly, these traps catch the tracks of smaller creatures–rodent types–very neatly.

If your garden topography allows it, you could drag clear the area around your beds in the evening and see what prints might show in the morning. The Internets are full of track pictures that you can use to identify your particular culprit. You probably already have a few guesses about who it is–it would only take a minute of googling to find out the difference between the tracks of, say, an opossum and a skunk. Or a feral cat and a raccoon. Even if the prints are not particularly clear, you can often tell a lot just by their size. Websites with track ID pictures come with notes about standard measurements.

Once you know for sure who is causing the mischief, it might be easier to come up with solutions for how to protect your garden. For instance, you could look up advice from your local Integrated Pest Management program, like the one offered by the University of California.

Note: If you’re in the market for a good tracking book, I can recommend the book we used in class, The Tracker’s Field Guide, written by one of the teachers.

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  1. I need to get that book so I can look for hard evidence of cougars, not just my anxiety. I think the worry impedes my ability to fully enjoy the backcountry.Sounds like a fantastic class.

  2. @Desert: I admit to having a mild case of cougar paranoia, too. If it makes you feel any better, my instructors were always on the sharp lookout for cougar tracks–not out of paranoia, but out of love–and in the whole five days of intense tracking in an area full of bunnies and deer and other good eatin’ for lions, only a couple of oldish prints could be found.

    Remember that you’re not their food of choice. As I understand it, bad encounters are more likely to occur on the fringes of cities, where mountain lions are stressed, and over-accustomed to human presence, not in the real back country.

    Also, to make the point a different way, I spent 4 nights sleeping out in that same area without tent or fire, all alone, and managed not to be eaten, despite my paranoid imaginings.

    All in all, out there you’re really lucky if you see any mammal at all larger than a rabbit.

  3. Daddy would spend several days carving an animal foot and then put the tracks by the stream next to our house. We had to guess what it was. If I saw a cougar track, I would assume it was a prank. I thought of powdering the basement floor with talc to see what was down there at night, knocking things over and generally frightening me. Thankfully, there is no door from the basement to the first floor! Your class sounds so wonderful except for the spending the night alone. Honing my earth skills will never include sleeping alone in the forest. I would want to work on the skill of finding people! But, it sounds like you had a wonderful time and learned lots.

  4. @Parsimony: To clarify, in the tracking class we all camped together–tents, fire, cookstove, the whole shebang. I was actually referring to another outing in the same area when I said I slept out.

    But anyway, that’s a great story about your dad!

  5. When I was a kid, I was thoroughly enthralled by Tom Brown’s book “The Tracker”. There weren’t the resources back then as there are now, so I never really pursued it. Reading this post reminded me of an activity that I was very passionate about.


  6. Mrs. H, Oh, I thought you were all alone, sleeping in your little tent or blanket on the ground. Good, at least the ruckus you would make when attacked would have people there to keep the cougar from dragging you into the woods or feasting onsite. Thanks for that correction.

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