I’m a sucker for an old western movie, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood set the standard of being a bad ass in the old West. Ever notice whenever the western involved the U.S. Calvary, normally the 7th I assume in remembrance to Custer and his Regiment, the army always had an Indian scout. He was usually a poorly dressed imitation of a soldier or sometimes in his natural garb, but always Indian. Ironically, Hollywood got this attempt at historical fact correct, the scouts, also called trackers, were native Indians and were employed by the army because they could track and the white man couldn’t.
As we look around the “non-civilized” world, deep Amazon, New Guinea, Mongolia, etc. wherever indigenous people live off the land, they are skillful at the art of tracking. Why? Because their very survival depends on hunting native animals for food, clothing and shelter. Faced with kill a deer or your family goes hungry, you’d better know where the deer are, and since they are nomads, you’d better be able to track their movements.
Today we go to the grocery store for food, or better yet, the closest fast food place. We program our vehicles’ GPS to guide us to an unfamiliar restaurant we hear we just have to try. Need to know anything … Google it. An eight year old boy living in the 1800s would know more primitive survival skills than 95% of the civilized modern man. Add that fact to the point that white men never did master the art of tracking, and you have a bunch of lost, starving men in ragged suits wandering about.
Well, I’m not going to let you be in that straggly group because we’re going to learn, at least the basics, of how to track animals in the wild. No matter how well prepared or stocked you are to endure a crisis situation, you will eventually run out of food if the event last long enough. At that point providing a new source of food for your family becomes the utmost important task of the day. Let’s begin.
Tracking is the art of learning where the animals are located and is divided into two segments. One segment, we’ll call Sign tracking, is being able to recognize signs of animal activity, such as trails, scat, tree rubs, etc. The second segment is actually identifying what type of animal it is by knowing the tracks they leave as they move about.
The first thing to do is find high ground with a good view of the landscape, being able to read the landscape is the first step. Most landscapes have “Islands,” patches of habitats that meets the needs of certain species of animals. In other words, you don’t look for a polar bear in the desert, but if there were an ice island among the dunes, that’s where you’d head. Try and locate an island where herbivores would be, the carnivores will follow so don’t worry about them.
So what does a herbivore need?
- The first thing is cover, a place to hide and escape to. Thick brush, lots of tangled vegetation, rocky terrain in which to slither under.
- Different varieties of vegetation and food source. An area with only one type of food is dangerous for an animal to make their permanent home. When the food source is exhausted or out of season, the animal will have to venture out of its protection to feed. They don’t like exposing themselves to predators. So an area with varied food sources is a very good area to hunt.
- Many people relate animals to themselves and think they require a water source close by for survival. This is not exactly accurate as herbivores derive most of their water from the plants they eat and dew.
Types of Habitats: Bear in mind location can play a large role in tracking. A deer in Iowa will require a slightly different habitat than a deer in Mississippi simply because of the environment. There are no swamps in Iowa … no large cornfields in Mississippi.
- Deep Forest is usually poorer animal animal habitat because there is little undergrowth for cover and the different types of vegetation is limited. You’ll find squirrel, rabbit and deer in this type of environment, but little else.
- Open Fields are also poor areas to find animals. There is no or very little cover and the center of the field is hawk and owl hunting territories. You may find a rabbit, but mostly field mice.
- Transition spots are excellent areas to locate many different varieties of animals. A transition area is where one type of habitat transitions into another. For instance, forest to field, forest and a creek, or different feed plots like clover to Milo.
Woods to Field to Food Plot
Analyzing a large Area:
Look for paths. Animals will tend to take the easiest path when crossing a landscape of any type, not much different than you and me. This traveling will create paths, nature’s highways, and are visible if you know what to look for. This is an excellent area to hunt, for unless an animal is being chased by a predator, when they leave the trail for the most difficult terrain they can find to discourage their pursuer, they will eventually take the path again.
Travel routes are somewhat different from paths. Paths are usually species specific, such as deer will normally only use the path, but trails are nonspecific species. Deer. Rabbit, squirrel, coyotes, etc will all use the same travel route. Notice if there is any vegetation growing or battered foliage, which indicates heavy traffic. These travel routes seldom change drastically.
Runs and Escape Routes are paths which are seldom used and change frequently. They would be the place to hunt in conjunction with a drive, as the animal would probably use the same escape route as was previously successful.
Lastly, you must be able to recognize animal sleeping areas and what they mean.
A bed is a consistent sleeping area, turkeys roost in much the same manner, which is used every night barring something interfering with the normal habits. A bed will be difficult to find because it’ll be located in the thickest, most difficult spot in order to make it difficult for a predator to reach quietly.
Transit Bed is like a vacation home for humans. It’s an established bedding area but not used all the time.
A Lay is recognized by the matted or crushed vegetation. It’s a brief resting spot where the animal feels safe enough to rest or chew cud.
Recognizing Recent Activity:
Being able to accurately read signs of recent animal activity is the key to a successful hunt. These are signs which an animals leaves during its normal course of living and are the most telling of all signs. They include, but are not limited to:
Rub which is an unnatural polishing or destruction of the landscape. They can be made unintentionally, such as rubbing against an item (limb) that protrudes into the trail when using the path, or intentional, such as when a deer scratches the velvet off its antlers, or will sometimes wallow in the dust to ward off mites and other parasites.
Signs of hair or feathers can indicated recent activity. Read the site. Hair stuck in the bark of a tree or a couple of feathers most likely means travel and/or roosting. Large clumps of hair or numerous feathers most likely indicates a kill zone.
Gnaws and Chews can indicate recent activity as a beaver will gnaw on a tree, or rodents will gnaw on an animals’ skeleton (bones) in order to retrieve calcium. Chewing of vegetation can identify which animal it was. A 45 degree clean cut blade of grass was most likely a rodent’s incisors. A serrated edge most likely a deer, as they grab the grass against their upper palette and pull the grass off by raising its head.
Scratch marks can be made Unintentional, such as a bear or cat crossing boulders or rocks, and intentionally, such as a skunk or raccoon digging for grubs.
Debris and Upper Vegetation breakage can tell you the size of the animal and perhaps how long ago it passed through the area. Debris such as a larger creek boulder out of its banks will indicate a rather larger animal for it to be able to roll the stone. If the stone shows signs of moisture stain, the animal is fairly close. When vegetation is broken, the height of the break will indicate the size of the animal. Break the grass above the current break and compare texture and moisture content. Not even close … it’s an old break and the animal is long gone. Breaks same color and both have moisture, the animal is close.
Scat or animal waste is nearly like talking to the animal it can be that revealing. That’s why identifying scat and being able to analyze it is very important. In the summer herbivores leave loose mushy scat because they are dining on soft succulent vegetation. As Fall approaches you’ll see evidence of remains of nuts, seeds and berries. Scat in the winter is hard and will consist of bark and twigs. Never use your fingers to rummage through scat during your investigation, and if it is dry and powdery, do not inhale the dust as it could cause lung infections.
Animals tend to leave scat where they feel safe, so look for lays around scat droppings.
Who left the scat?
Tubular shaped scat – Raccoon, dog, skunk, wolverine, bear or possum.
Tear drop or tapered – Cat family
Fattened Threads – Weasel family
M&Ms – Rabbits & Hares
Oblong, possible nipple at one end – Deer
Tubular and tapered at both ends – Fox
Let’s Get Serious:
Animals don’t leave red flags laying around to announce their presence, unless you want to consider the white flag of a deer running away an announcement, which I guess it is… “Bye Sucker”. Let’s learn to read nearly invisible signs.
We start this by learning the Side-head technique of viewing the world. Get on the ground, keeping the suspect area between you and the source of light. Place your head as close to the ground as possible, scan the area with your bottom eye, which focuses on the ground to 1 foot above, the top eye reads up to three foot above ground. You are looking for a compression on the surface. What’s a compression? Dust and grit particles will collect on all surfaces. When an animal walks onto this surface it will either grind the grit into the surface or remove it. By utilizing the side-head technique you will be able to see either a shiny spot or a dull spot, depending on whether the grit is dull or shiny. If the trail is somewhat old and dust has resettled the pock will still be visible, just harder to see.
More invisible signs to look for:
Dulling occurs in the morning when there’s dew on the ground, which makes everything appear shiny. As an animal crosses the grass it will either wipe away the dew or compress it, which will give it a dull appearance in comparison to the rest of the grass. Be aware, this sign quickly disappears as the dew evaporates.
Shining occurs during the day after the dew is gone and everything turns dull. An animal stepping on the grass will press it downward flipping the shiny side of grass up to reflect the sunlight. This condition will last about 2 hours, depending on weather conditions.
Leaf depressions occur when animals step on them pushing them into the soil. The leaves will spring back up, not revealing the track in the soil, but not completely. By Side-heading you can still see the slight depression left in the leaves.
Analyzing a Track:
Anyone can see a track in the soft soil and declare victory, but that’s not even close to being accurate. When an animal places their hoof or paw down, the heel slides into the ground, indents, then pulls out. No track will ever go straight down, there’s always an angle, either when the foot enters or leaves.
The softer the soil the greater the slope of the wall which creates a greater distortion. Most people make the mistake of measuring the distorted track, not the true track. So what’s the big deal? Does it really matter? Well, it does if you want to be a 100% sure of what you’re tracking. For instance, a dog track can look like a coyote track. The dog’s inner toes are larger than the outer, the coyote the reverse. You can’t tell the difference in the overall track.
How to Age Tracks:
Okay, you’re doing pretty good identifying potential animal habitat, verifying your findings by locating solid signs of activity, locating tracks and reading what they tell you. That’s excellent, but as far as hunting for food, you need to know if the animal crossed that spot a couple of hours ago … or a couple of days ago. You need to know the age of that track.
The most important influence in track degradation (aging) is the current weather and fluctuations of weather.
Gravity is the second most influential factor in degrading.
The third factor is type of soil, which is classified from 1 to 10 with 1 being sand and 10 being clay (soft or hard).
The only method of learning how to determine track degradation is to experiment with different soils and weather conditions. It’s hands on training that can’t be replicated in a classroom or in a book. It’s time consuming and tedious work that may test your patience, but if you are serious about learning tracking, a must do exercise.
- The first thing to do is classify the soil. It’s best if you could perform simultaneous tests in different soil types.
- Clear an rectangle area about 1 foot by 1 foot, removing all rock, grass etc.
- Dig down about 2 inches, break the soil up as fine as possible, then pat the soil in the hole down into a flat smooth texture and allow it 24 hours to settle.
- Use a stick (not a knife) to scrape 5 lines in the soil, from barely scratching it to digging a ½ inch deep trench.
- Carefully examine the marks for 8 – 10 minutes ingraining every little detail into the subconscious. Write down current weather conditions.
- Come back 6 hours later and repeat the identical process, making new scrapes with the same stick, pressure and depths, directly adjacent to the first 5 lines. You’ll now have a visual comparison of fresh tracks and 6 hour old tracks.
- Repeat this process every 6 hours for 24 hours. Making note of the differences in each grouping.
- Then repeat the process every 24 hours for 6 days, showing degradation of fresh to week old tracks.
- Perform this identical task in all four seasons, as I said weather is the single most factor in degradation of tracks, thus telling their age.
In today’s technological age I suggest taking photos of each experiment, assuming the camera quality is adequate, and taking notes on your computer. I do warn you … do the experiments and retain to memory, the other is an aid for learning, but won’t help if the knowledge is not ingrained into your memory. Mastering this exercise will give you the skills to age a track within 2 hours, even if the track was a day old.
Do’s and Don’t s While Tracking:
By the very nature of the beast while tracking you will be in close contact with the ground and surrounding vegetation, which means you are at risk from certain environmental hazards. Let’s avoid them.
Scat – Never handle scat with your hands, use disposable gloves and a stick to pick it apart. Don’t breathe dried scats as it contains spores and microorganisms which are harmful.
Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac – These poisonous leaves can create a severely irritating itchy rash that makes life miserable. Remember the basic rule “Leaves of three … let it be.”
Ticks – ticks are disgusting little creatures, anything that sucks my blood is disgusting. Dog ticks carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, while deer ticks carry Lyme Disease, both serious illnesses. Always use pest protection that includes deet.
Bees and Wasp – can have their nests in rotting logs and in the ground. Their stings are painful and in some cases deadly if the person is allergic to the poison.
Obviously there are additional dangers to watch for, but these are the most common issues which makes life miserable for you.
It may be pretty evident now why the white man never really learned to master tracking. It requires intense concentration, patience and experience, which answers the question of why indigenous people are experts, they grow up learning the skills. But if you can become accomplished at the skills we disgusted you will be light years ahead of anyone competing for game in your area. That can be the difference between surviving or not.