Tracking- the All-Natural Family Activity
Looking for something to do with the kids on a winter day? Try animal tracking! It requires no special equipment, no passes, memberships or badges, gets them outside and active in the wintertime, and every outing is guaranteed to be different.
All you need is a patch of land that wild (or domestic!) animals are likely to amble through. This could be a state park, trail, field, meadow, wetland, patch of woods, or even a neighborhood that has some uninterrupted areas of undeveloped land.
The basic process is to simply walk around until you encounter an animal track. At this point you can examine it and talk about what creature may have left this sign. Some basic guidebooks can help here, but common sense and reason go a long way too!
Here are some questions to ask at First Encounter:
-Who made this sign?
-What was (s)he doing?
-Where is (s)he going?
This is the beginning of a wonderful process of imagination: tracking is a terrific antidote to excessive media/screen exposure because it forces you to create pictures in your own mind of this animal and it’s journey across this piece of its territory. Once you’ve gone as far as you can with this first track, you can follow the track and see where this animal has come from.
We recommend “back-tracking” animals in general because we don’t want to actually encounter or disturb these creatures, we just want to learn about them. So, follow the track backwards (if you can figure out its direction!). A story will begin to unfold as you travel along and answer questions like:
-Is this animal in a hurry?
-Is this animal hunting? Looking for shelter? A mate? Evading another animal?
-Does this animal like to stay hidden as it moves or does it seek prominent areas? What does that tell you about how the animal feels in its environment?
As you follow a track, you begin to generate a kind of moving picture in your mind of this animal, hopping over fallen logs, crawling under branches, jumping over streams, that is better than any documentary film. In many cases, in order to follow the animal, you have to move like it does. This is particularly fun for small children.
In the woods behind our house, we are lucky to have a nice big forest that is populated by all sorts of wonderful creatures. Because there are many criss-crossing creeks, we have a healthy assortment of water-loving animals like fishers, mink, and weasels. Following these animals is great fun for children because they move in and out of different environments with tremendous agility and sometimes almost playfulness.
Of course, the more you learn about the animals you track, the more interesting the game becomes.
Tracking engenders a deepened respect, not only for the animals you track but for the ecosystem upon which they rely. Tracks can remain intact in snow for days or even weeks, and every time a good snow falls, the slate is wiped clean and you have a whole new game to play!
Once we tracked a fox who had walked along a steep hillside in the forest, then found a cozy sheltered nook under an overhanging rock and had curled up for a nap! There were strands of reddish fur left in the oval impression in the snow.
Another time we tracked a coyote to a kill site- where there were the remains of a small deer carcass. This led to a lot of exciting and provocative discussion about hunting, life, death, and survival in the wild.
Finally, the best thing about tracking is that you will never stop learning and improving at it. Just learning to identify the basic animal tracks is a substantial undertaking. There are many levels of expertise beyond that. The world’s greatest tracker, Tom Brown, Jr. can look at a single track and tell you everything you could possibly want to know about the animal that left it- from its state of mind to whether it’s bladder was full and whether it licked its lips or turned its head or cocked its ear!
Here’s a track I encountered on a recent trip to Montana. The track is very fresh: only a couple minutes old. The lens cap of my camera is alongside for size reference. See if you can tell what (pregnant) animal made it!