Animal Tracking and Signs guide – how to track any animal (even people)
Tracks and signs (collectively termed “spoor” by trackers) include any kind of mark or disturbance left by the passing or activity of an animal or person. Because anything that touches an object leaves a trace, tracks and signs can be found everywhere. With knowledge and practice (tracking animals is both a science and an art), you can learn how to track and find any animal or person by the traces they leave behind.
Tracks are typically imprints or trace-outlines made by feet but may also include marks left by an animal’s tail, head, antlers, or any other body part that touches another surface. By paying attention to the size, shape, pattern, and distinct features of the tracks left by an animal, you can determine which animal left the track and then determine what the animal was doing.
Signs are anything besides a track that indicates an animal has been there. This could include trails, scat (poop), markings on trees, discarded food, skin or hide left behind, etc. Together, tracks and signs are called “spoor” (spoor is the general term trackers user to describe any sign of a creature which may include tracks, scents, broken foliage, etc.).
An experienced tracker will have a preconceived image of what a typical track or sign looks like. With this preconceived image, you will be able to identify signs and recognize spoor in markings left behind by an animal. In fact, an expert tracker will “memorize” the animal’s distinct spoor making it possible for the tracker to distinguish individual animals from each other.
Tracks and signs are extremely useful in a survival or wilderness situation. From tracks, we can learn how old the animal is, what direction they are travelling, whether they are male or female, their behavior, and even their emotional state at the time. Using knowledge from tracking may help you secure food or water or depending on the species, help you avoid an agitated, dangerous predator.
Note that tracking a person uses the same techniques employed to track an animal and thus, if you understand how to track and recognize signs, you can determine a person’s physical structure, speed of travel, sex, and even emotional state.
Tracking is an information-gathering expedition – one that does not disturb or alarm the target you are tracking.
A good tracker first learns how to recognize and process animal signs, which fall into four different categories: (1) large-scale signs (e.g. trails), (2) medium-scale signs (e.g. scratchings), (3) small-scale signs (e.g. minute compressions on the ground), and (4) ghost-scale signs (e.g. very minute depressions on the ground).
Large scale signs
Large scale signs refer to signs in the environment itself and are the first signs you look for when tracking an animal. You begin by examining (reading) the landscape.
Reading the landscape
Herbivores need cover (vegetation, rocks, brush) and a wide variety of vegetation and water sources. Indicator animals, such as voles/mice, rabbits, and deer, hint at the quality of the habitat. If voles/mice are present, the habitat is good. If rabbits are present, the habitat is even better. If deer are present, the habitat is excellent.
Forrest, fields, and streams with little undergrowth and cover are poor animal habitats. Thus, animals will transition between them, for instance, between field and stream, between forest and field, etc. Animals transition to these areas using various travel routes which you can think of as a roadway system for animals.
Runs are like trails but used less frequently and thus, see less wearing than a trail. These routes typically connect watering areas, sleeping areas, and food areas and may change over time. Runs vary in size and wear and are typically specific to the animal that uses them (which makes them especially good areas for trapping since you can determine precisely which type of animal is using the area).
There are two different types of escape routes. A pushdown is typically only used a single time by an animal that is fleeing a predator. In contrast, an established escape route may be worn from repetitive use. Established escape routes may also lead to a “hide”, a safe place the animal uses to hide from predators.
Subsurface trails are tunnels, the diameter of which can help determine the species that created or uses the tunnel. Any type of trail that passes under leaf debris, soil, or snow is considered a subsurface trail.
Sleeping areas fall into several categories including beds, transit beds, lays, dens, and nests.
A bed is a sleeping place for an animal typically evidenced by temporary impressions left by the animal’s body as it lay. Beds are usually made in the thickest area of brush so the animal can hear other animals approaching while it lays.
A transit bed is similar to a bed but not used as often as a regular bed.
A lay is the same as a bed but usually only used once or twice for a quick rest. Lays are recognized by broken or crushed vegetation in a well-defined area (similar to an escape route but confined to a specific area). The shape of the lay is a useful clue to figuring out the animal species that made them.
Some animals may not only sleep in a bed but also dig a hole or find a cave-like enclosure in which to raise their young. These enclosures are called dens – special places where the animal feels secure enough to raise its vulnerable babies. Burrows, tunnels that provide underground shelter for an animal, often lead to dens.
Nests are the sheltered sleeping areas constructed from natural materials and put together using mud, saliva, and vegetative debris or by weaving or piling the materials. Nests are typically used by birds but are also built by squirrels, rats, mice, voles, and other small animals. The largest nests are lodges constructed by beavers.
A feeding area may be categorized as (1) varied run feeding area, (2) single plant feeding area, (3) eat-through, or (4) patches.
Varied run feeding area
A varied run feeding area, where animals go off of the trail here-and-there to find and eat food, are very common.
Single plant feeding area
A single plant feeding area is characterized by a run terminating at a single plant or group of plants.
As its name implies, in an eat-through feeding area, the animal has literally eaten through a patch of vegetation.
A patched feeding area is marked by nibblings along the edges of trails and runs. Signs of a patched feeding area along a trail may indicate the animal feels secure on the trail.
Medium-scale signs provide definitive signs of animal life and are especially common on trails and runs. Medium-scale signs provide the most definitive sign of an animal’s presence. Medium-scale signs include rubs, gnaws, chews, scratchings, ground debris, upper vegetation breakage, above ground marks, bones, feathers, scat, kill sites, and more.
Rubs are raw, smooth areas on the landscape where the animal has rubbed off the outer surface of an object, typically a tree. Rubs may be unintentional, places where the animal has unintentionally, for instance, rubbed on a twig or branch that is protruding across a trail or run.
Rubs may also be intentional, an area where an animal intentionally rubbed itself, for instance, an elk wallowing in grass to rid itself of mites or a snake using a low-lying branch to assist in shedding its skin. Members of the deer family will create rubs using their antlers. The deer will rub a small tree down to the cambium layer and then rub their facial scent glands onto the mark.
Regardless of the type of rub, hair or feathers may be left behind and may provide valuable information about the animal species. Be aware however, that remnants of hair or feathers may indicate a kill site and not necessarily a rub.
A gnaw is where an animal has gnawed on vegetation, typically wood. An example of gnawing would be a beaver gnawing on wood or a squirrel gnawing on a tree. The size of the marks indicate the size of the animal.
Chews are where a plant has been bitten off. It differs from a break which is caused by animal movement. The type of chew may indicate the animal and include 45-degree clean cut chew, serrated edge chew, and masticated chew.
45-degree clean cut
A 45-degree clean cut chew is created by an animal with incisors (e.g. rodent).
Serrated edge chew
A serrated edge chew is created by an animal, such as a deer, that bites down on the plant and then pulls or tugs on it to sickle.
A masticated chew is characterized by bite marks all over the plant. A masticated chew is often a predator chew (predators often chew plants to obtain minerals).
Scratchings are characterized by claw marks. Scratchings may be intentional, caused by an animal intentionally clawing the ground (e.g. searching for food) or clawing on a tree (e.g. a cat or bear sharpening their claws on a tree). Scratchings may also be unintentional such as incidental claw marks made by an animal while it is moving.
Ground debris is any unnatural debris left on the ground and may include stone rolls, broken twigs, etc. Some animals, such as kangaroo rats, will create “haystacks” or piles of vegetation left out to dry and cure for future use.
Upper vegetation break
An upper vegetation break is vegetation that is broken or abraded by an animal. The height of the break may indicate the type of animal. Upper vegetation breaks may also provide timing information if you can determine the age of the break. To determine the age, you can break off a sample yourself and time the aging process. Note that this type of aging is not as accurate as track aging (discussed below).
Above ground marks
Some animals leave signs off the ground called above ground marks. A good example is a woodpecker which leaves holes in trees. In the case of a woodpecker, the size and spacing of these holes can assist in identifying the type of woodpecker.
Bones, especially skulls, can help identify a species. Even if they do not help identify the species, bones can hint at what the animal’s dominant sense are, what type of food it eats, how it finds its food, its rough age, and more.
Feathers are a common sign found in the wilderness and when relatively intact, can help identify the species of bird.
Scat, or animal feces, is one of the most useful and accurate animal sign available. Scat may help determine the animal by its size, shape, consistency, and content. Scat of course, will also tell you what the animal has been eating (which may provide clues as to the species, where it’s been, or where it may be going).
Scat is found in areas where the animal feels safe, often near lays. Sometimes mammals, especially carnivores, use scat to leave scent marks that communicate information to their neighbors (e.g. age, sex, health, and disposition). Dryness of the scat can help determine how long the scat has been exposed to the elements.
You can break up scat to determine what the animal has eaten. If scat is dry, avoid breathing the dust (can lead to lung infections and/or disease). Herbivore scat will be loose and moist in the summer. In the fall, scat will show signs of nuts, seeds, and fruit. In the winter, scat will become harder and show signs of twigs and bark.
The shape of the scat can help determine the animal too. Tubular scat often belongs to dogs, raccoons, skunks, opossums, wolverines, and bears. Teardrop or tapered scat belongs to cats. Fattened threads indicate a weasel while M&M-shaped scat indicates a rabbit. Oblong scat (possibly with a nipple on the end) hints at deer. Pencil lead scat is left by rodents. Scat that is tubular and tapered on both ends is left by a fox or weasel.
Herbivores such as deer, rabbits, and rodents tend to leave small scat that is uniform in texture (e.g. pellets). Carnivores and omnivores like coyotes, typically leave larger scat that contains hair, bones, and seeds.
Similar to scat is cough pellets, regurgitated bits of food left by hawks, owls, and eagles. Cough pellets will often contain bone, hair, scales, insect carapaces, and feathers. Owls are especially easy to identify using cough pellets. Because they have weak digestive systems, owls often leave behind many bones in their cough pellets.
Urine may be difficult to see but is sometimes deposited with scat. When identifying urine, your sense of smell is often the best tool. Regardless, it is difficult to teach identification of urine because the smell is hard to describe. In fact, the only practical way to learn identification of urine is via experience.
Kill sites are areas where carnivorous animals (birds of prey, cats, dogs, bears, etc.) have left remains from their feeding activity. At kill sites, the manner in which the animal was consumed, the type of animal consumed, and the location of the kill are all good signs.
Note that at large kill sites, many different animals may have fed off the kill which could skew your analysis of the animal being tracked.
Small-scale signs are difficult to discern and include compression and dust or grit left on the surface of an object. Animals walking either lift grit from the surface or compress it into the surface. To detect and analyze compression, sideheading (see below) provides the best method of seeing the compression pattern.
Sideheading to better view animal tracks
Trackers use sideheading to provide a better view of a track or sign. When sideheading, keep the track between you and the light source. With the sun shining behind the spoor, shadows cast by small ridges and indentions in the spoor will be easily visible. Turn your head sideways and low to the ground. With your head in this position, your bottom eye scans the ground (to about one foot away) while the top eye reads up to three feet away. Compression appears as a dry or shiny spot on the surface.
In the picture below, the track is hardly visible when viewed from above (don’t worry if you cannot see the track – that’s the point).
But noticed how the ridges in the print are much more visible when using sideheading to view the track. The track would have been even more visible if true sideheading had been used (vs. a camera held lower to the ground).
Sideheading may also help with analysis of ghost-scale signs. Ghost-scale signs include dullings, shinings, and leaf depression.
Dullings are areas where a passing animal has wiped dew from the surface. Effects of dullings disappear as the dew dries.
Once vegetation dries out, animals passing over it press it down causing the shiny side of the grass to reflect sunlight. This effect, called a shining, disappears in about two hours. Note that bent grass recovers completely in about 24 hours.
Passing animals depress the leaves leaving a compression outline in the leaf/vegetation and in the soil underneath the leaf. The leaves may spring back but not necessarily completely back to their original position. Use sideheading (described above) to spot the depression.
The tracks themselves, when a clear-cut sample is available, are an excellent method you can use to identify the animal.
The true track
The true track is the track that represents the true shape of the animal’s foot. A frequent tracking mistake is not considering the movement of the animal when the track is made. When an animal steps, its toe lightly touches the ground first, followed by the heel sliding into the ground. The toes may roll forward slightly before the animal track is registered and it lifts its foot. These sliding movements distort the true track but also help the tracker determine the direction the animal is moving.
Taking into consideration the softness of the soil, no track will ever register straight down. There will always be some angled component to the track – either from the foot entering or leaving the track. To isolate the true track, you must ignore disturbances to the surrounding area that are created due to the animal’s movement. Only the true track will let you distinguish between a dog and a coyote (the inner toes on a dog are larger than the outer toes – vice versa for a coyote).
Measuring a track
When measuring tracks, you must consider all four tracks (or two tracks for people). Always measure toe-to-toe for animals (animals hit the ground with their toes first) and heel-to-heel for people (people land heel first). The following components should be measured (use diagram above for reference).
Line of travel
The line of travel indicates the direction the animal is travelling. Eye the track to determine the line of travel or place a sticks at the heels of the tracks and tie a string between the sticks to create a visual line of travel.
Length of track
Measure the length, from heel to toe, of the true track.
Measure the widest part of the true track.
Stride is measured from the heel of the right foot to the heel of the left foot (on one side of the pattern).
Straddle is the distance between the left and right tracks – not the diagonal distance but rather the true straddle of the animal. To measure the straddle, draw a straight line along the inside of right tracks and another straight line connecting the inside of the left tracks. The distance between the two lines is the straddle. There can be a positive or negative straddle.
Pitch is the degree to which the foot angles out from the line of travel. To visualize pitch, imagine the angled position of a human’s foot who walks “duck footed” and the turn of the foot of a person who walks “pigeon toed”.
To measure pitch (reference diagram above), draw a line through the track, longways, that bisects (halves) the track. Next, draw a line along the outer edge of the inner toe and the outer edge of the heel (the heel line). The gap between the two lines is the overall pitch. Then measure the gap from the heel line to a point on the bisecting line where the line ends at the front-most point of the track.
The pitch numerical value (true pitch) can be calculated as the overall pitch – ½ the track width. For example, A track is 4” wide with a 3” overall pitch. The true pitch is calculated as 3” – 2” (1/2 of the 4” track) = 1” true pitch.
The overall stride is the distance between the heels on one side of the animal. In other words, the distance between two left-heel tracks is the overall stride (there is a left overall track and a right overall track).
People and animals have a dominant side when walking. The dominant side uses a harder, short step while the non-dominant side uses a longer, feeler-type step. This means the left-overall stride will differ from the right-overall stride and allow you to determine the animal’s dominant side. For example, a right-sided person may have a right overall stride of 21” and a left overall stride of 21 ½”
In most instances, there is not a track that can be seen clearly in soft soil with all toes visible. Thus, in 95% of the cases, you must use pattern classification in lieu of clear print classification to identify the animal.
Clear print classification
There are several considerations when using clear print classification to analyze a track.
First, determine the preferred gait of the animal to help differentiate between the front and rear tracks. The front and rear tracks will be in sets and near each other.
Number of toes
Note the number of toes in the front track and the number of toes in the rear track. 2-toed tracks are often deer or elk. 3-toed tracks may be birds. 4-toed tracks could be rabbits, cats (mountain lions, bobcats), or dogs (foxes, coyotes). 5-toed tracks are weasels, skunks, and beavers.
Note that it is important to note the number of toes on both the rear and front tracks. Tracks with 5 rear toes and 4 front toes are mice, voles, shrews, chipmunks, squirrels, or porcupines.
Note the overall shape of the track.
There are two types of registers. A direct register occurs when the rear track drops directly into the front track. As an animal lifts its front foot, the rear foot on the same side may drop directly into the front track. This is called “perfect walking” and is common in cats and foxes. An indirect register occurs when the rear foot drops slightly behind and left (or right) of the front track. As the animal picks up the front foot, the rear foot drops slightly behind and to the left (or right) of the front track (this behavior can help determine the sex of the animal).
Special considerations for birds
Ground-based birds spend most of their time on land and will demonstrate a “walking” gait. Perching birds however, will typically exhibit a “hopping” gait. If a bird track shows both a walking and hopping gait, it is likely a species that spends time on both trees and on the ground (e.g. crows).
Track “patterns” can be used when the tracks are not clear and easily recognizable (or may consist of only a compression in debris). To analyze using pattern classification, you must take into consideration the gait of the animal (its normal walking pattern).
Recognize that the animal’s gait will change depending on its speed (fast, slow) and circumstances (casual exploring, being chased). An animal walking slowly pushes its body weight forward. For instance, an animal’s walking pattern may differ when they are stalking prey vs. when they are being pursued. Surprising to some, this means you can tell the emotional state of the animal by their tracks.
Speed of the animal is classified as (from slowest to fastest):
- slow walk
The gait of an animal can be classified as diagonal walkers, bound walkers, gallop walkers, pacers, or some variation of these gaits.
Diagonal walkers, such as deer, dogs, and cats, move front and rear feet on opposite sides of the body at the same time. For instance, they step with the right front foot and left rear foot at the same time.
This type of walker will sometimes vary their gait as their speed increases. Diagonal walkers may pace when bored or annoyed. These animals rarely hold a bound on soft or rocky terrain preferring to gallop. On clear terrain, they may hold a bound for a few patterns before going on to gallop. However, diagonal walkers can go directly from a straight walk to a gallop if startled.
Bound walkers (or bounders), such as animals from the weasel family, step first with both front feet followed by both rear feet behind the front feet (as if their feet were “bound” together). They hop and leap by placing their front feet down and in one motion, they lift their front feet up and place their hind feet down in the same spot. Bound walkers nearly always walk using this pattern regardless of their pace (it is a very energy efficient means of locomotion).
Bound walkers may diagonal walk when approaching a hunting area, then shift to a stalking pattern. Bound walkers will gallop when requiring a burst of speed. They may pace when bored, agitated, or threatened (a common occurrence right before they go on a hunt).
Gallop walkers (or gallopers) are similar to bound walkers. The front feet land first followed by the rear feet landing on the outside of the front feet and slightly ahead. With these animals, the pattern doesn’t change with speed but rather, the distance between the sets of tracks increases as they gain speed.
This pattern is common with rabbits and rodents. With tree dwelling animals of this type, it’s common for the front feet to hit side-by-side. Gallop walkers of course, prefer to gallop but will sometimes bound in soft terrain such as snow or mud. A gallop walker may diagonal walk when covering short distances. Gallop walkers will stalk when moving away from a dangerous situation and then may switch immediately to a gallop pattern.
Pacers can be thought of as the opposite of diagonal walkers. Pacers move front and rear feet on the same side of the body at the same time. For instance, they step with the right front foot and right rear foot at the same time.
Although it seems as if they would tip over using this type of gait, the pacer pattern is common with animals that have large, rounded bodies such as badgers, skunks, porcupine, opossum, raccoon, and bears. Pacers sometimes change their pattern as their speed increases.
Occasionally (about 5% of the time) and animal will change their gait or display a combination of gaits. This is especially true with diagonal walkers and pacers.
Reading animal tracks
Once you’ve identified the gait, take note of the shape of the track. It may be round, oval, box-shaped, heart-shaped, or imprinted with a fuzzy front edge and elliptical back. Using research, memorization, and experience, you will not only be able to identify the animal species using the information you gathered, but other details about the particular animal you are tracking.
Determine an animal’s dominant sidedness
If an animal walks with one front foot behind the other over several tracks, that foot is on the animal’s dominant side. For instance, if you find the left front foot is consistently behind the right front foot, the animals dominant side is its left. An animal will tend to circle in the direction of their dominant side.
Determining an animal’s sex by its track
Male and female animals of the same species have different bone structures. For example, males may have larger shoulders to support heavier chests and antlers while females may have wider pelvic areas to accommodate the birthing process. These differences in bone structure may allow you to determine the sex of the animal from the tracks they leave behind. This is especially true with adult diagonal walkers such as deer.
For a diagonal walker, if the rear track on one side falls inside the front track on that same side then the animal is male. If the rear track on one side falls outside the front track of the same side, the animal is female. For immature animals (non-adult), the rear track may fall exactly behind the front track regardless of its sex.
For example, you can determine the sex of a cat, which direct registers, in this manner: Since the cat direct registers, the print of the smaller rear foot will fall inside the print of the larger front foot. If the rear track falls to the inside of the front track, the cat is male. If the rear track falls nearer to the outside of the front track, the cat is female.
Determining the age of a track
Weather, weather fluctuations, gravity, and type of soil all contribute to a track’s aging process. The only way to learn how to age tracks is to actually observe a track degrade over time under various weather and soil conditions.
Begin by classifying the soil’s texture. For tracking purposes, soil is classified from 1 (sand) to 10 (clay) as follows:
- Very coarse sand
- Coarse sand
- Medium sand
- Fine sand
- Very fine sand
- Coarse Silt
- Medium Silt
- Fine Silt
- Very fine Silt
Note: The Wentworth scale includes 4 classifications below sand (boulder, cobble, pebble, and granule) which are not applicable to tracking.
Once you have classified the soil, observe the aging of a track and record you observation taking care to note the soil classification that the track is imprinted in. The easiest way to conduct these tests is by preparing an environment that is convenient to monitor. Prepare a patch of ground (remove all rocks and vegetation and break up the soil) and place artificial marks (simulated tracks) in it which you can watch degrade over time.
Anticipating movement of the animal being tracked
Trackers may not necessarily follow all the tracks of the animal they are tracking. In order to save time, they may anticipate the movement of the animal and adjust their route to save time or even intercept the animal being tracked. If effect, the tracker visualizes the animal’s movements as if they were the animal themself.
For instance, if it becomes apparent that the animal is moving from shade to shade, the tracker may jump ahead to the next shaded area rather than following all the individual tracks in between. Or, if it is clear that the animal is following a specific trail, the tracker may move quickly to a point where the trail forks and then pick up the track there. Or, knowing that a feeding animal will typically move into the wind, moving from one bush to another, the tracker may move upwind from the tracks to look for signs.
Anticipation is especially important in terrains where the tracks may be difficult to discern and comes into play each time an area of hard or stony ground is reached (where tracks are impossible to discern) and the track is lost. If a group is tracking together, they may fan out to pick up the spoor again. If working alone, a tracker will anticipate the animal’s movement, forming a working hypothesis which is revised as more information is gathered. This helps the tracker reconstruct, in his mind, what the animal was doing, how fast it was moving, and where it might be moving to.
Remain stealthy while tracking
When tracking, it is important to not alert the animal which can cause them to change their direction of travel or possibly double-back onto their own tracks. This is why trackers avoid making sudden movements (which could even disturb other animals and alert the animal being tracked) and often drop to their stomachs as they approach the prey. As such, you should avoid stepping on dry leaves and twigs and take care when moving through dry grass.
When tracking animals, try to remain downwind of it so it cannot detect your smell (animal smell is many times greater than a human’s). This is typically not difficult since animals prefer to face and move into the wind so they can detect what is ahead of it, but becomes more important as you draw near to the prey since animals prefer to stop and rest (and periodically turn) facing downwind so they can see if anything is coming up behind them. Given animals’ keen sense of smell, you must be especially cognizant of changes in wind direction.
Finally, a tracker must minimize his footprint and remain stealthy lest the tracker become the prey.
Identifying the species
Once you have tracked the animal and catalogued its signs, you can use “animal cards” to help identify the species. Below is a list of animal cards you can use to identify various animal tracks. Each card contains common signs for that species as well as track descriptions that you can use to assist in identification of the animal.
Misc. tracking tips and considerations
When tracking, take care to not destroy the spoor. If the trail is lost, you can come back to an earlier point and restart from there.
Tracking is easiest in the morning and afternoon as shadows cast by ridges in the spoor are longer and stand out better. After a rain is a good time to look for animal tracks around sand bars, washed sandy places, ditches, and gully washes.
Trackers never look down at their feet but rather, look up and ahead approximately 15-30 feet in order to track faster. If they see a sign further ahead, those in between can be ignored while they look for spoor further on.
Trackers must avoid concentrating solely on the tracks and pay attention to everything around them. Expert trackers constantly vary their attention between the minute details of the track and the overall pattern of the environment they are moving through.
Quick reference to common animal tracks
Below is a quick reference of many different animal tracks found in North, Central, and South America.