Wildlife thrives year-round in the forests of southern Maine; we can better understand these outdoor critters by studying the tracks (animal footprints) they leave behind. There is no better time to go out tracking than the winter and spring, when freshly-fallen snow and mushy mud give way to feet, leaving depressions behind long after animals are gone. Without words, nature tells us who/what was there, where they were going, and sometimes, for what reason. When we venture outdoors to read animal tracks, it’s often an enjoyable and educational pastime. There was once a time, though, when the ability to read tracks truly meant life or death. Tracking can show how food is found, a means of understanding predator and prey relationships, and a tool for reading the environment. Studying tracks is a way for us to get closer with the environment, especially when it’s so easy to become wrapped up in our daily grind and forget about the other living things that help keep balance in our world.
Tracking is a science, a study of the environment. It can deepen our understanding about clues that exist all around us. A variety of goals may be met by studying tracks, whether we are identifying or locating specific animals or aging tracks in order to discover how long since the animal was there. In the woods of southern Maine, some of the most easily identifiable tracks belong to white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and striped skunks. Each wild animal leaves behind its own unique track, made up of claws, toes, and pads (in the case of a bobcat) or shapely hooves (white-tailed deer, etc.) It’s through the study of evolution that scientists have found these two distinct foot types develop in mammals. No matter how feet look or the print they leave behind, tracks can always tell us something about their creators.
Identifying tracks is a skill that takes time and practice to master. To get started, it’s important to consider what you already know about different animals in your nearby woods and to understand how an animal thrives and meets its needs in the wild. For example, a domestic dog and a coyote have tracks very similar in appearance; however, a coyote track will show distinctive sharp claws (used for survival in the wild,) while a domestic dog’s track will show blunter claws.
When you go out tracking, there is plenty to see; many New Englanders like to share their experiences using websites and blogs. There is a wonderful tracking community all around us, and their shared experiences are fascinating. Be sure to check out the following blog for more information!
Portland Water District trails are a great place to get outside and use your new tracking knowledge. Check out our web site at www.pwd.org or follow us on Facebook to learn more about the Sebago Lake Land Reserve, various trail events, and our occasional snowshoe treks.
By Megh Rounds