Large groups of children are likely to scare off mammals, but they can learn to identify tracks to learn more about the animals that left them.
Several years ago, before the area became a county park, my dog and I loved to explore along a nearby river. The banks, which at first were gently sloping, gradually rose more steeply as we hiked the water’s edge. One of our favorite spots was a long flat stretch of sand. Lukey liked it there because he could easily run in and out of the water — cooling off at will. I loved the wet sand that read like an animal story picture book — hundreds of tracks everywhere I looked.
I could make out the hoof prints made by several pair of white-tailed deer and the cute little hooves of their young. Over the months, as the tiny hoof prints grew, I knew that the fawns were thriving.
I saw the tracks of raccoons as they ate by the water and hunted for crayfish from the shore. The tracks of several bird species painted scenarios that I could picture in my mind. They left marks with their beaks when they pecked the ground for insects or seed and I could see where they’d stopped to preen or dry off from a bath.
We discovered a cave that had formed under the roots of a lovely old live oak that hung heavily over the bank. The tracks around it and leading into it told me that here was the den of a family of coyote. Although Lukey desperately wanted to drop in and say “hello,” I insisted we move on.
My students and I are always on the lookout for animal tracks and other signs of their activity on or near our campus. We have had the good fortune to spot the actual animal, on occasion; but we are consistently rewarded with their tracks and signs.
Wild animals are so wary of us humans. They possess incredible skills of flight and camouflage. They hear, smell or see us coming and are long gone before we get near. However, they are often sitting stock-still, right under our noses. Regardless, if you have a class of children with you, it is pretty difficult to spot a wild animal. Chances are you’ll have better luck looking for their tracks.
Once you begin discovering animal tracks at school, you will impress your students and surprise yourself. It is so much fun and is one of the best, most authentic means of promoting “environmental awareness.”
Like so many outdoor learning experiences, tracking can be as simple or as complex as you’d like it to be. You might simply go out with your class and look for signs that animals are living nearby. In that case, you don’t need to bring anything. Your children will start spotting signs and you will learn from them. There is probably a child or two in your class who rarely get a taste of success. This just may be their opportunity to shine.
Should you decide to take the activity to another level, there are a few items that might help.
- Field guides. There are several simple guides online. (See the suggestions at the end of this article, especially bear-tracker.com.) You can easily print a class set. I suggest you laminate them. You can also purchase a folder-type guide that is easy to carry, waterproof plastic cards, magnetic squares, scarves with tracks printed on them or choose from many, many books on the subject. One of my favorites is the Stokes Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior.
- Flashlight. Yes, even in the middle of the day. Shine the light on the track, at an angle. This casts shadows inside the track and really highlights its features. Sometimes, it’s the only way to see whether there are claw marks. Mike Dunn, naturalist with the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, demonstrated this great trick for me. We were tracking black bears in the Pocosin Wildlife Refuge. It was so effective! I’ve used it ever since.
- Plaster. It is very satisfying to cast a good track and bring it home as a souvenir of your outing. Plaster of Paris works fine, but you do need to use a collar to keep it together and to reduce the risk of cracking. A collar is usually a strip of milk carton, cardboard or a strip of plastic that encircles the track and acts as a wall to hold in the plaster. However, if you use dental stone, you don’t need to use a collar. I love dental stone. You just mix it and gently spoon it into the track. Come back a half hour later and it is hard enough to lift out. Once its set, it’s very hard. You can clean it off, stain it or paint it or use it as a mold to make more track replicas. Dental stone can be purchased from your friendly neighborhood dentist, for about a dollar a pound. Other casting material, made specifically for the purpose, is available from environmental and outdoor education suppliers.
- A camera and a coin. You might want to take photos of the tracks you find. A coin placed beside the track gives the final picture some perspective.
- Journals. Teach your students to journal with pictures, poems, prose, diagrams, rubbings and bits of pressed plants. Journaling encourages healthy self-expression, fosters observation and can cultivate writing skills. Some of our most groundbreaking discoveries in the wildlife sciences have been possible through close observation and careful journaling.
Using the tracking worksheet
Although I am a proponent of experiential learning, I do see the value in a good worksheet. Some children love them. They can be overused; that is certain. But when they’re not, they can make a good introductory lesson or a valuable enrichment or culminating activity.
Another way to use this worksheet is to have the children draw a hill and a stream on a large piece of paper. They can then cut out the animals and their tracks and glue them in place, to create a woodland scene.
Animal tracks, indoors
There are several sources for animal track sets that have been cast from the real thing.
There are animal track rubbing plates. Children love making rubbings and these provide fun and an educational benefit.
There are animal tracks that the children can slip onto their feet. They can make wet tracks on brown wrapping paper or paint tracks — if you dare.
I like the sets of life-sized tracks, cast from the real animal prints, made of soft vinyl. They can be used like stamps or they can be used to create hard plaster replicas.
Where have you been all my life?
As with every new discovery, you and your students will be amazed at this new world of animal tracking. Everywhere you look, you’ll see tracks. And as with everything we learn, you’ll wonder why you hadn’t noticed them before.