Animal tracking is a lot like being a detective.
Every track and sign is another clue that tells us valuable information we can use to read the fascinating stories of local wildlife.
Most trackers primarily focus on what kind of animal left a track, and while this is definitely a valuable skill, it’s really just the beginning of what’s possible.
With good observation & critical thinking, your ability to read information in tracks can go far beyond just knowing what kind of animal left a track…
Animal tracks tell us all kinds of amazing things including:
- What types of animals live here?
- What are they doing?
- Where are they going?
- How fast are they moving?
- What behaviors & goals do they have?
- When did they pass by?
- Why are they here?
This might sound like an incredible amount of information, but it really just comes down to practical observation & questioning skills that anyone can learn with a bit of practice and dirt time.
Learning To Read The Stories Told By Tracks
One of the big secrets to knowing what tracks are telling us really comes down to understanding the importance of context.
Context means you’re not just looking at the track itself, but how that track exists in relationship to everything else in the local environment.
The context of a track includes everything from the plants & trees growing nearby, to the particular behavior traits of whatever animal you’re studying.
Let’s take the example of finding a raccoon track:
What does this track tell us?
Well, on the surface it tells us that a raccoon was here! That much is obvious…
But if you think about this carefully, there’s all kinds of other less obvious information that can be read between the lines.
For example – The fact that we know a raccoon was here means we must be in an environment that has some kind of benefit for raccoons!
This might seem like a strange observation, but it’s actually the whole secret to unlocking the deeper story because it points us towards seeing tracks within their context.
Now we can start to ask more expansive questions that relate to those raccoon tracks in contextual ways like:
- What kind of trees & plants are in this area?
- Are there any possible food sources nearby?
- Are there sleeping locations in this area?
- Is this animal traveling in a place with lots of cover and safety? Or is it exposed to prying eyes?
- What time of year are we in?
- What’s happening right now in the life cycle of this animal?
These are all very simple questions that anyone can start to think through with just a rudimentary understanding of animal behavior and how animals relate to their environment.
Yet each new question adds important layers of information to help us build out the larger story as a narrative of that animals life.
By studying tracks in relationship to context, we see that finding a raccoon track in a patch of sand next to the river during summer tells us something VERY different from that same raccoon track found in the deep forest during spring.
The actual track is the same, but the context is completely different, and therefore it tells a VERY different story!
This is really what 99% of wildlife tracking comes down to.
We have to examine every track and sign from every possible angle in order to reconstruct a complete story of events.
This is why so much of tracking simply comes down to asking really good questions.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at five of the most important tracking questions and what they tell us about the animals we discover outside.
1. What Animal Made This Track?
The most basic question we always need to answer in tracking is knowing what kind of animal left a track.
This question obviously gives us the most practical starting point for tracking in general, but it also tells us an incredible amount of prerequisite information about the animal itself.
Once you know what animal left a track, it enables you to call upon all your prior accumulated knowledge about that animal.
This is a huge advantage because it instantly tells us all kinds of useful things about how that animal survives like:
- Is this animal a hunter or prey?
- What kind of food does it eat?
- Is it usually active during day or night?
- What role does this animal play in its overall ecosystem?
So even before we begin following a trail, we already have a pretty good behavioral profile of the animal simply by knowing it’s identity.
This means we’re better equipped to anticipate the most likely scenarios, behaviors & purpose behind that animals movement.
Obviously this takes practice!
When you’re first starting out, you might not have very much background information about the animals you’re tracking.
You’ll need to research about the behavior and habits of different types of animals to build up your knowledge base.
But eventually you will be able to draw a lot of valuable conclusions just by answering the question – What animal made this track?
I’ve already covered some pretty good depth on how to confidently identify tracks in other articles like the online guide to animal tracks.
It simply comes down to observing the actual track characteristics like:
- How many toes?
- What are the measurements?
- Does this animal have claws or not?
- What’s the shape of the pads?
- What’s the shape of the negative space?
If these identification questions are new to you, I would recommend watching my video tutorial that walks through a comparison of cat vs dog tracks for more info and real life examples.
2. What Was That Animal Doing?
One of the coolest things about reading tracks is being able to tell what an animal was actually doing when it moved through.
This question definitely requires a bit of skill, but it can be surprisingly straightforward when you take the right approach.
Remember, at this point you already have some general ideas about the types of behaviors to look for from knowing what kind of animal you’re tracking.
Animal behavior is really quite simple when you break it all down. Animals are motivated by simple things like food, water, danger & the urge to procreate.
So all we have to do is find some concrete evidence to help us evaluate which scenario is actually playing out in this moment of time.
So how do we tell from looking at tracks what an animal was actually doing?
One of the best ways to begin answering this question is by looking at the pattern of movement.
All animals have preferred methods of travel, whether walking, trotting, loping or galloping.
When you combine these movement patterns with knowledge of animal behavior, it tells us a lot about what’s happening with the emotional state of that animal.
For example, deer will typically choose to walk whenever possible. It’s the most natural and energy efficient form of movement for their bodies.
So when you observe deer tracks in a walking pattern, it’s a good sign they’re not currently feeling pressured by predators.
However, when you see deer tracks speeding up into a galloping pattern, this is a sign that something is causing that deer to get nervous or excited.
From here it’s just a matter of finding more clues to explain what’s actually causing the emotional shift.
By studying animal movement patterns in relationship to behavior, we begin to find answers to questions like:
- Is this animal currently hunting or being hunted?
- Where does this animal feel comfortable or under pressure?
- How close is this animal to it’s home territory?
- Where does this animal go to eat, sleep & evade danger?
These are quite fascinating things to know!
And it all simply comes down to studying the relationship between the front, hind, left and right feet.
If you want a more thorough explanation of how to observe patterns of movement, I walked through the entire process in my article on deer tracks & what they tell us.
3. When Did This Animal Pass By?
Another valuable piece of information we can tell from looking at tracks is when that animal was actually here.
Aging tracks helps us to better predict how far behind an animal we might be.
If your goal is to eventually see the animals you’re tracking, it helps to know whether you’re 30 minutes behind, or 2 days behind!
Track aging also helps us to interpret tracks & behavior in their contextual relationship to the time of day and recent weather patterns.
This is important because animal behavior often changes quite significantly during daytime compared to night, and during rain events vs clear skies.
Tracks made at night often reflect a very different landscape with different types of behavior that tell a very different story than tracks made during the daytime.
So if you know a track was made at night just after it stopped raining, this will really help you anticipate what the animal was doing here and why.
Track aging is one of the most difficult skills to hone at the highest level, however making some approximate estimations is relatively simple to get the hang of.
Simplified Track Aging Scale:
- Fresh: Tracks made in the last few hours
- Recent: Tracks made earlier today, but no longer fresh
- Day old: Tracks made within the last 24 hours, but probably not today
- Old: Anything made longer than 24 hours ago.
This all comes from studying the different aging qualities of where you find tracks in sand, mud, snow in relationship to recent weathering influences like sun, precipitation & wind.
4. Where Was That Animal Going?
Of course, one of the most important things we can tell from looking at tracks is where exactly this animal was going.
It’s usually quite simple to tell the direction of travel from a single track. This is simply a matter of identifying which way the toes are pointed.
Then once you know the direction of travel, try searching forwards and backwards to find more tracks connected to the trail.
Generally, the more tracks you can find, the more accurate your interpretation will be.
But even if you can’t find a lot of tracks, there are still plenty more opportunities to anticipate and gather information based on the most likely scenarios.
A key principle in tracking is that animals move in patterned ways across the landscape that reflect consistent habits & behavior cycles through all four seasons.
The more you know about these behaviors and tendencies, the more easily you can predict where animals are going without necessarily having a lot of tracks to show you the way.
We explored this method of ecological tracking in more depth during an earlier article on how to track deer if you’d like to learn more.
The main idea is to look around your environment and notice where the tracks are actually located in terms of the broader ecosystem.
- Are you close to water?
- Are you up on a big ridge line?
- Are you near the edge of a forest?
Then given everything you know about the animal you’re tracking, how do you suspect it might be navigating this landscape?
How would YOU navigate this landscape if you were that animal?
Our goal here is to develop a working theory based on the combination of evidence we find in tracks, and our accumulated knowledge about that animals behavior & lifestyle.
Eventually you learn that every animal has it’s own unique way of moving through the landscape in more or less predictable ways.
A great example is raccoons who love to forage and hunt along the edges of water, then retreat into the tall trees for safety and rest.
This means if you find a raccoon track in the mud next to a pond, there’s a very high likelihood you can find more tracks by scanning up ahead for muddy spots next to the water.
By repeating this process multiple times we can study how animals cross large areas of their habitat without needing to waste time finding every single track.
Looking at tracks helps us understand why animals do what they do.
So whenever you make new observations about animals and tracking, one of the best ways to gain deeper insight is by asking the question – why?
This is sort of a tracker’s meta question because we can ask this about every other question we’ve already asked.
- Identity: Why is this animal here? Why am I finding these raccoon tracks next to the pond?
- Behavior: Why is it acting or moving in this way? Why are these deer moving at a trotting pace rather than a walk?
- Age: Why is this animal here during this time of day/season/weather?
- Direction & location: Why is it going this direction? What’s over there to benefit this animal?
Asking the question “why” points us towards reading the stories of tracks within their complete environmental context.
Nature is a big interconnected system of relationships that includes plants, trees, flowers, seeds, insects, weather, frogs, snakes, birds, seasons, and so much more.
It’s important to take all these factors into consideration when you want to know what tracks are really saying.
At first the stories you tell about tracks will mostly just be theories and speculation based on limited information and knowledge.
But eventually as you gather more clues and investigate those theories, your stories and interpretations will become increasingly accurate.
There’s a common teaching in wildlife tracking circles that says:
The more skilled you get with tracking, the less time you spend looking at the ground.
The unique combination of questions we explored in today’s article are a big part of why this above statement is so true.
Every track tells a story, and the only limitation is our own awareness for reading those stories.
So let’s get outside, find some tracks and practice asking these questions!