Dancing Hawks
Animal tracks—including those produced by rabbits—tell interesting stories. Photo by iStock.
Animal tracks—including those produced by rabbits—tell interesting stories. Photo by iStock. 
Tracking for kids

By Kristen Laine

AMC Outdoors, December 2009

Nicky Pizzo knows that children love a good story. So when she wants to get children excited about going outdoors, even when it's cold, she tells them about the stories they'll find. Pizzo, an AMC senior naturalist, says, "Winter is the best time to solve natural history mysteries."

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Learn more about idenfitying animal tracks.

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We may see fewer animals during the winter, but the season helps us see more evidence of their lives by showing us their tracks. A light snowfall on bare ground or on top of an icy crust provides the blank pages. Armed with a little knowledge, children can decipher the clues that animals leave.

Pizzo teaches basic tracking skills in the winter workshops she gives at Joe Dodge Lodge in Pinkham Notch. With adults, she explains the four basic mammal patterns (walker, bounder, waddler, and hopper). But her focus with children is on getting them to notice tracks, not necessarily to identify the animals that make the tracks. She likes to pose a series of detective questions to help them make educated guesses:

1. How many toes does the animal have? Moose and deer have two, dogs and cats have four, and weasels have five.

2. Does the track show claw marks? Squirrel and fox tracks show claws. (Dog tracks do, too.)

3. Is there a line in the snow? Mice sometimes leave the imprint of a tail in the snow; porcupine tails leave troughs.

4. Are the tracks spread far apart or are they close together? Answering this question tells children whether the animal is big or small and whether it was traveling quickly or slowly.

5. Do tracks go over or under downed trees? A bigger animal will go over a downed tree, while a smaller animal may choose to go under it.

6. Did the animal stop to eat?

7. Do tracks stop at a tree? A squirrel can climb a tree, Pizzo tells children, but a rabbit can't.

Even where wild animals aren't that common, tracks can tell useful stories. "There are tricks to telling the difference between dog and cat tracks," Pizzo says. "Dogs have pointed toes, and their tracks often show claw marks. Cat tracks are rounded and don't show claws." Children can remember these differences by remembering that dogs have pointed faces and cats have round heads.

Pizzo reminds children to use their ears as well as their eyes to follow animal stories. Some of these stories are romances: Owls, foxes, and coyotes, for example, mate in January and February, so even in the middle of winter, children may hear potential mates calling to each other. Pizzo suggests calling back to barred owls—"who cooks for you, who cooks for you all"—to see if they'll return the call.

Animals also leave their marks in other ways. Pizzo has shown children how to trail a fox by following the little drops of yellow pee that the fox leaves every 20 feet or so. "That's the fox's business card," she tells them. Not surprisingly, once the kids get past an initial "yuck" factor, that's a mystery they love to solve.