Effective Wildlife Tracking Requires Careful Observations of “Sign” — Part I

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How well do you observe things around you?  Do you remember the kind of car that just passed, the color of shoes of the lady who waited on you at the restaurant where you dined an hour ago, or how many stories high was the apartment building on the left side of the street two bocks past?  As you walk through the woods, what is the significance of the black and white feather in the path, the earth alongside that looks like it was plowed up, or the huge cat-like footprints in the path?  Each “sign” has special significance to the cautious nature observer and/or “tracker.”

In his book, Scouting for Boys*, Baden-Powell (BP), the father of modern Boy Scouts,  teaches about “observing”—its importance in tracking wildlife.  This present article will incorporate some of his expertise on the subject.

If you are tracking wild game, one has to be especially observant.  Small, obscure items such as a broken twig, tramped grass, footprints, a hair, drop of blood, scratch marks on a tree—all have special meaning to a seasoned tracker.  BP emphasized the importance of not allowing a single sign to escape one’s attention.  First, the sign must be noticed, then, secondly, the meaning must be discerned.  All four of our senses need to be constantly alert—sight, hearing, smell, touch –in being prepared to make observations.  However, sight and hearing are most often used during the daytime.

Scientists carry a field notebook when engaged in field research.  This can be a small notebook (waterproof paper is good) or binder and writing utensil with permanent ink.  It is wise for the tracker or observer to also have a similar method of recording observations at hand.  Memories often play tricks with the mind.  Be sure to write down date, exact time and wheeabouts, number pages, note weather conditions (at the top of the page), then record observations.

Practice is important in learning how to be a good tracker.  Most of us aren’t normally inclined to be good observers, so special attention needs to be paid to practicing.  One’s eyes need to be continually moving in every direction, near and far, noticing everything that is going on.  This can be done anywhere, even in city and town, especially noticing people—their faces, their dress, their boots/shoes, their way of walking.  Try and make out from their appearance whether they are rich or poor, what is their probable business, whether they are happy or ill.  Care should be taken so as not to be too obvious in observing.  Also, keep your eyes on the ground.  I have found trinkets and coins and tools by observing the ground while walking, even though many others had already passed over the same ground.  A fun game is to quiz one another about recent observable peculiarities of persons recently encountered, architectural qualities of buildings, store window displays, or interesting and unusual actions of city animals or humans.

BP tells the Sherlock Holmes experience of meeting a stranger and noticing that he was looking fairly well-to-do, in new clothes with a mourning band on his sleeve, with a soldierly bearing, a sailor’s way of walking, sunburnt, with tattoo marks on his hand.  Holmes guessed, correctly, that the man had recently retired from the Royal Marines as a Sergeant, that his wife had died, and that he had some small children at home.

It may happen as you are traipsing through the woods some day, that you find the remains of a forest animal or even a dead person.  In the latter event, authorities should of course be notified immediately.  However, sometimes important sign may be lost before authorities arrive, such as falling or melting snow or severe rainstorms.   In such a case, even the smallest sign should be noted and recorded—a small and inexpensive camera is invaluable in this instance.  Indeed, one may take 20 to 30 minutes just standing still, photographing and writing thoroughly every conceivable detail when encountering a dead human body:  position of hands, feet, lay of body, any unusual marks or wounds on head, face or arms, evidence of a struggle, footprints (measure, sketch/photograph),broken or tramped vegetation/shrubs/trees, blood and its location, etc.  Record or sketch the exact original position of the body on a map.  Carefully examine the ground around the body without treading on it any more than is necessary by spoiling existing tracks.  Record every possible detail surrounding the scene.  In natural settings, take note of landmarks or other objects that will prevent getting lost such as distant mountains/hills, church towers, rocky formations, trees, gates, etc.  If you need at some future time to exactly describe your way, directions would need to be given unmistakenly and in proper sequence.  Every by-road and foot path needs to be noticed and remembered, perhaps recorded.  Any information so gathered should be offered to authorities for review.

BP suggests that smaller signs including nearby birds taking hurried flight or rising dust may be indicative of some other nearby person or animal.  Tracks of smaller animals, birds, wheels can be suggestive of valuable information.

At night, small details become vital.  Listening is chief among senses employed, sometimes by feeling and smelling.  During night stillness, sounds carry further than during the daytime.  The human voice carries for a great distance, even speaking low.  Putting you ear to the ground or placing it against a stick, one can hear the shake of horses’ hoofs or the thud of a man’s footfall from a long distance off.

The keys to effective sign observations and tracking are:  practice, practice, and more practice—then, be sure to record details in your field notebook or if you are very good, memorize!

*Scouting for Boys, A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship Through Woodcraft.  Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell, World Brotherhood Edition.  314 pp.  Copyright 1946 by the (British) Boy Scouts Association.  Published by Boy Scouts of America.