Over the past few weeks I have found myself either in sweaters over pajamas or in long underwear and snow pants. Between packaging dried mushrooms and herbs and organizing my seed room, I have outdoor chores—there are the wild birds that I provide with oil-rich seeds and starchy corn cakes of lard and food. Water and straw go to the coveys of bobwhite quail kept in four large enclosures outside; once native to this region but now unseen in the local rural landscape due to habitat destruction. I also leave the warmth of the woodstove fire for stretches to hone my skills in identifying animal tracks and trailing wild birds and mammals. Stepping outside to notice and learn how animals inhabit this city in the depth of the season could cure more of us of our wintertime blues.
I view the practice of trailing as taking in the larger story of an animal, while I see tracking as building a more individual picture. Trailing involves following signs or marks in the landscape left by animals, which includes their tracks and any disturbances they have made by feeding, moving, or taking shelter. Some of these marks are: bark scrapes, foraging holes and kill sites, broken branches, lost feathers or clumps of fur, scat, compressed plant remains, temporary lays or longer-term beds, burrows and dens. In our winter months, devoid of the foliage that serves to camouflage these features, all of these marks are much easier to spot. Without saying, there’s winter’s gift of snow, a fantastic substrate that takes impressions quite readily and creates contrast both in color and shadow.
I have been tracking rats, wild birds, and a muskrat in my yard and the city’s alleyways and parks. A coyote or three and a fox at the city’s margins. Tall grasses, shrubby hedges, tree snags, and open waterways are a great starting point to look for such creatures, as someone is usually taking refuge from the humans or other predators in these places, or taking advantage of open water to hydrate or fish. A wet snow is better at taking a clear registration of tracks. A dry snow makes it more challenging to find clear physical tracks, and a deep snow causes hooves, tails, and paws to drag, which can be confusing. But the general shape, distance between, and patterning of punch marks through the snow can give you clue of identity. I also look for signs of navigation through a landscape: stripped bark, bent or broken branches, a scatter of seed from a tallgrass, the shredding of seeded flowers, a frozen pile of scat. Yellow snow. Red snow.
I carry binoculars, a loupe, a camera, and my ever-present tools of measurement: my hand and my natural walking pace. I prepare to track and trail by dumping my mind in the house before I step outdoors, walking to a quiet starting area, and then centering myself quietly. I open my senses, every one of them extending beyond my own body, including the sensing organ of the skin, and allow for fuller awareness of my environs—air, layers, and type of tree and shrub canopy, species and arrangement of plants, change of slope within the ground, large stones, fallen logs, buildings, dumpsters, water features. Once I discover signs, I enter the mind-set of whatever I might be following and learn from it as I proceed.
Once tuned in you will notice animal highways everywhere. Who’s there, how they move through and use the land, who they encounter—favorite forage spots and the speed or urgency in which they look for food are all revealed. The swish of a tail into a den or brushing of feathers around a pounce kill, the pause when a four-legger, once trotting, stands on its hind legs to notice something, and the rerouting of its journey. Burrows reveal themselves in tree snags explaining the pile of bones in front of them. The hustle and switchback weavings of rabbits as they build cities under woodpiles. You’ll find the crack in the wood that the rats have discovered to get into your garage.
A few features to scout for:
Burrows and dens: Diameter and orientation of hole, if it is sloped or drops suddenly; where they are found, be they under shrubs or a woodpile, and if under a tree, what species it is and at what height it is found.
Nests: Size and shape, materials they are made from, height they are found at.
Prints: If a bird, size and distance between tracks. Are they webbed, signaling seagulls, ducks, geese, etc, or anisodactyl (three toes forward and one back), belonging to hawks, falcons, pigeons, morning doves, crows, herons, or with the back toe less pronounced, such as have wild turkeys and pheasants, or zygodactyl (two toes forward and one toe back), such as woodpeckers and owls have. If a mammal—a digger? A leaper? Long toes? A canine? A cat? A rodent? A tail drag, claw marks, foot pads, fingered paws—all are strong markers of specific mammals.
Patterns and pacing: Take note of the straddle and stride of the tracks you find. Is the animal walking, loping, galloping, or running?
Wing impressions: Important for predators, as they are rarely just standing on the ground and usually perched coming into ground to swoop and pick up an animal to feed on or process a kill.
Scat: Size and shape as well as color and contents. A loupe is perfect for identifying the animal’s favorite foods.
As most of us humans huddle inside, know that midwinter is the courting and mating time for many predators—fox, great horned and barred owls, coyotes, and also beavers and squirrels.
While the cold-weather bird species are here—hawks, kestrels, woodpecker, jay, chickadee, cardinal, and housewren—the first spring birds arrive from their sojourns south—robins, eastern bluebirds, sandhill cranes. Go outside early, after the animals have been moving all night, and keep your senses open to these signals of the thaw to come. v