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Animal Tracking, Part 3: Trail Widths

by Chad Clifford
(ed note: See other parts of Chad’s tracking series in our archive. Chad runs his own website: www.wildernessrhythms.com

After examining the trail pattern, the trail width should be measured. This will narrow the animal to the species level (that is, the shrew from the mouse; the chipmunk from the red and black squirrels; the fox from the coyote, etc). Trail widths are measured in various ways based on the walking pattern used.

Trail widths of the diagonal walkers:

  • Bobcat 3-4”
  • Red fox 4”
  • Coyote 5”
  • Deer 6-8”

Trail widths of the weasels (bounders):

  • Least weasel 1”
  • Short tail weasel 2-2.5”
  • Long tail weasel 2.75”
  • Mink 3”
  • Marten 4”
  • Fisher 5”

NOTE: weasels tend to exhibit a sexual dimorphism, meaning that the males are often quite a bit larger than the females. Hence, when it comes to trail widths, consider that species of near trail width sizes could be somewhat confusing. However, this is when you consider other clues as well — like preferred habitat and the area you are in.

Trail widths of gallopers:

  • Shrew 1”
  • Mouse 1.25”
  • Vole 1.5”
  • Chipmunk 2”
  • Red squirrel 4”
  • Black/Grey squirrel 5″
  • Rabbits 5”
  • Hares 6”

Pushing Your Abilities
Remember that by combining the ‘pattern’ type and the ‘trail width’, you will be able to recognize tracks to the species level. Moreover, these two clues will allow you to identify old tracks where all you can see is a vague outline of the trail. However, we are just getting started! There are a number of fun activities and methods that will really push your ability as a tracker/nature observer.

Plaster tracks.
This activity is fun for youth as well. The first step is to arm yourself with some plaster of Paris — the stuff you fix holes in drywall with. I place the powdered plaster into a one litre milk bag. I bring a second milk bag to do the mixing in. There should be enough for one large track or two small ones.

Journalling is another way to greatly improve your tracking eye.
Of course many naturalists keep track of weather along with other interesting data in their journals. One great activity for the journal is to find a place outside where you make a track in the soil. Draw this track in your journal. Return six hours later and make a fresh track and draw only the older track again. Return a day later and make another track and draw only the oldest track. Keep this process going and you will see how tracks deteriorate over time. One should try this activity in a variety of soil conditions.

Sandboxes are a great way to learn what an individual track has to tell you.
It will also help you learn of gait or pattern changes that occur with changing speeds. Every movement and hesitation is found in the tracks. They will also help you learn of gait or pattern changes that occur with changing speeds.   My sandbox is 4 metres by 1 metre and 30 cm deep. I keep it covered to stop the growth of plants. You will be amazed at what you can learn in a short period of time just by playing in a sandbox.

Walk through the box and note how the sand reacts to regular paced walking. Try turns, accelerations and decelerations.  In classes I have walked, jogged and ran with my dog through the tracking box to demonstrate how diagonal walkers’ gaits change with speeds.

Tracking Kit.
Your kit should be carried into the field with you. This is your in-field resource helping you solve the many mysteries that await you. The kit bag may be a small, generic camera bag with an extra pocket or two. Inside my kit I used to bring my 3×5” cheat cards; a small paper pad and pencil; a magnifying glass; a small measuring tape; flashlight, and a vernier calliper.

Mystery Tracks.
If one thing is certain about tracking, you will find mystery tracks. These tracks are there to teach you a lesson. This is one of the many aspects of tracking that make it fun, challenging, and memorable.

My favourite tracking books

I would purchase these books again in the following order of preference:

• Brown, T. (1983). Tom Brown’s field guide to nature observation and tracking. An inspiring read. Good tracking tips and philosophy about the nature experience.
• Kura, A. (1995). Mammals of the Great Lakes region. Great general information book about mammals including skull keys, dental formulas with other good descriptions.
• Stokes, D. & Stokes, L. (1986). A guide to animal tracking and behaviour. A great book for tracks and sign.
• Rezendes, P. (1992). Tracking and the art of seeing. Neat photos of sign, scat and animals. Winter shots too.
• Murie, O.J. (1954). A field guide to animal tracks–the Peterson field guide series. The classic tracking book. Good information on animals tracks and patterns.

Other Tips
• Consider tracking when the sun is low and casting long shadows. Track relief can be improved that way.
• Reach down and the feel the tracks with your thumb or index and middle fingers. You will attain much more information through your fingers than looking at a track.
• If a track is covered with snow, simply dig down to the original track and feel for it. It will be firm from the compression of the snow when it was made.

In closing, once you begin tracking you soon discover there is a whole new world out there with many riddles and scenarios waiting to be revealed. Allow yourself to be right; that is, play on your hunches or intuitive thoughts.

If you second guess everything that you find it may become discouraging and overwhelming. Go with the little threads of evidence you see, blend that with the larger picture. Chances are, you will be right more often than not.