Friday, January 29, 2010

Learning About Animal Tracks

In a recent post, At the Bosque: Who Lives Here?, I wondered what animal had made these tracks at the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. Here are the photos once again:

I was guessing that the tracks in first two photos were made by a very large coyote; and I had no idea what animal might have made the tracks in the last one.

Ah, but that was before. I now have a little more experience in the tracking of animals, having taken a workshop on dryland animal tracking from wildlife biologist Kevin Hansen down at the bosque. Kevin is the author of Bobcat; Master of Survival and Cougar; The American Lion, and is one of the most fascinating speakers I have ever listened to.

When I say I am more experienced, I mean that very loosely. Having spent a few hours in a group led by an expert in biology and botany, I now know more than I ever imagined I might about the art and science of animal tracking, but I also know that to become an expert would take a lifetime. However, in the classroom and out on the trail, Kevin introduced us to some basics of tracking.

First, we learned that you need to know the local flora and fauna of your area. It's no use guessing what the tracks you are looking at come from without first knowing the range of reasonable possibilities. We learned that frequent visitors to the bosque area where we were walking included members of the dog family (gray fox, coyote, domestic dog), the cat family (bobcat), hooved animals (javelinas, or wild pigs; the occasional mule deer), the weasel family (4 kinds of skunks), raccoons, jackrabbits and cottontails, various squirrels and rodents, and many kinds of birds and insects.

By the way, we saw the tracks of the "resident" bobcat, and of a whole family of javelinas!

Next, we learned that it is best to track during the early morning or late evening, when the desert animals are, or have just been moving about. You want a good surface--soft, powdery dirt is best--and a low angle of vision. You must try to keep the tracks out of your shadow and in the sun. Above all, you must pay attention, concentrate, practice (practice, practice), and have lots of patience.

So, what did my tracks turn out to be? Remember, I had guessed that the first two were from a coyote. (A really, really big coyote!) Those photos, shown here again, were of tracks from the dog family, as I had first guessed. You would think it would be easy to distinguish the tracks of the dog and cat families, and it is, once you know that the cat's heel pad is larger in proportion to its toes than that of the dog; that the heel pad of the cat has three lobes; that the cat's track is more round and the dog's is more oval; and that dog tracks are symmetrical and cat tracks are asymmetrical.

However, we saw examples of coyote tracks in the classroom and they were much, much smaller than the ones in my photos. We learned that wild dogs have stronger foot muscles, and their tracks are therefore very compact, with the toes quite close together. The soft life of the domestic dog has weakened its foot and toe muscles over time, so the toes are more splayed.

My dog family tracks? They belong to Blondie, a golden retriever from up the hill who regularly trespasses in the state park. As Kevin said, in areas where domestic dogs go, wildlife will stay away. It is taking lots of education of the locals to get them to stop letting their dogs run loose and onto park land.

What about my other set of tracks? They look a little like human hands, don't they? They belong to the clever-handed raccoon, an animal with tremendous manual dexterity who is quite capable of opening doors and removing laces from shoes. Its scientific name is Procyon lotor: Procyon means "before dog" and lotor means "washer." For these and more raccoon facts, see Raccoon Tracks.

Monday's post: More interesting things we learned about animal tracking


T Fab P said...

All this animal tracking reminded me of the raccoon tracks in our kitchen. Our daughter,
MillieJupiter can into the kitchen to find a raccoon snacking on our cats dry food. After much screaming and wailing (both of them!) the raccoon went back out the way he came in, thru a slightly ajar screen door. needless to say, our cats were relieved to have their food back. Too bad the Pirate Dogs were not available to flush the intruder out!

JC said...

I love this
When we go to parks or museums, I love to sit & listen to the park rangers tell stories about this or that. Learning little tid bits that I normally wouldn't have.
You are now a detective !!!

Beth said...

Really fascinating information, Clair. I was especially interested in the difference in the tracks of the wild dog and the domesticated one. Neat stuff...