Learning Basic Tracking

Spring rains soften the earth which holds a record of what passed by.

 Down an old country road, spilled grain from last year’s harvest attracts deer

and coyotes

and something a little bit larger. Something that sent my two eldest children running home to tell me, somewhat out of breath, that they had found mountain lion tracks. I didn’t believe them. After all, we have a big dog. A very big dog. But their enthusiasm was high so I eventually went down to have a look and take some pictures. What I found surprised me because they didn’t really look like dog tracks.

And they were huge.

And I thought . . . maybe? So we spent the afternoon sending our pictures to anyone we could think of who might know what it was. Some wildlife enthusiasts said, “It looks like a cat. Do you have mountain lions out there?” Some hunters said, “It could be a cat, but tracking is really more an art than a science. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission sent us out to take more pictures before finally telling us the tracks were too deteriorated to really tell.

In the end, we weren’t able to find out for sure what kind of track it was, but the search taught all of us so much about animal tracks and the signs to look for. We learned about differences between a cat’s foot and a dog’s foot and differences in the way they move. We learned that the guy in the movies who can take half a track and the smell of a broken branch and tell you the age of the animal that walked by just does not exist. Tracking is a puzzle to which you rarely have all the pieces.

And we also learned that we really enjoyed the puzzle. The children want me to take them out again armed with a field guide, the camera, and some plaster of paris to see what else passes by in the night.


If you would like to learn more about tracking, Kim Cabrera has an excellent site with instructions for getting started and many pages of illustrations of different tracks in assorted terrain. If you would like to see how our big dog Jake’s tracks compare to the tracks my children found, I shared them on my blog.

Dana Hanley is homeschooling her five children while moving to the country. You can follow her plans and adventures while seeking to live life more abundantly at Roscommon Acres.

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