Searching for critters? Use these tips to get on track!
Step 1: Seek animals Go where the wild things are -- landscapes with heavy brush for hiding and diverse vegetation for year-round food -- and search for physical evidence. In addition to footprints, look for droppings, worn ground, and signs of rubbing, gnawing, chewing, scratching, or disturbance to the ground.
Step 2: Examine clues Study the evidence closely. "Focus on droppings, or scat":http://www.howcast.com/videos/418186-How-to-Identify-Scat -- its color, consistency, and content can indicate what type of animal left it and how recently. Write information you find in a notebook and check the data against a field guide to determine the animal you're tracking.
TIP: Use a stick or tweezers and wear gloves when handling scat.
Step 3: Classify the track Study footprints to help identify the animal you're tracking. Note the number of toes on each foot, claw markings, and the general shape of the print. Look at the pattern to learn whether the creature moves by diagonal walk, bounding, galloping, or pacing.
Step 4: Measure the track Use a ruler to measure the length and width of print's flat part, known as the "true track." Then, find the distance from the heel of one paw's true track to the heel of the same paw's next print to calculate the stride. Examine the distance between the inside edge of each foot left to right for the straddle.
Step 5: Follow the direction Figure out where the animal is going. Place popsicle sticks at the heel of the tracks and tape string between them to establish the line of travel. Check if one front foot is behind the other over 4 to 5 tracks -- the lagging foot is dominant, indicating that an animal will often circle in that direction.
TIP: If footprints become difficult to spot, put your cheek to the earth, and using your lower eye, look for shiny or dull depressions in the earth. Keep the tracks between you and the light source.
Step 6: Play the end game Track the animal patiently and quietly, and you'll soon catch up to your target!
FACT: The Boy Scouts of America's merit badge for tracking was originally known as "stalking."