Identifying Animal Tracks: The Tracking Funnel
When asked why I wrote Pacific Northwest Wildlife: A Guide to Identifying and Tracking Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates, my basic answer is that there was no comprehensive field guide to wildlife and their tracks and signs for our amazing corner of the world. Pacific Northwest Wildlife is specifically tailored to help naturalists here in the Northwest with identifying animal tracks and interpreting signs — and actually find the beasts that left them. Photographs are of sign as it truly presents in our region, measurements are taken from tracks found here, and the descriptions of each animal’s life history is based on research from the Northwest.
But there is also a deeper level to why I wrote this book. An important concept I wanted to present is that wildlife species are small pieces of a much larger system, and that we need to understand the basics of the system if we want to understand the parts. The format of the book reflects this — which is also the way we teach wildlife tracking here at Wilderness Awareness School, starting with an ecological context and global view of our region and our wildlife.
This is no easy task for a field guide that lends itself to discrete species accounts. It can be challenging as a teacher, as well, to present wildlife tracking in this way, in contrast to a mainstream western culture that continues to train people in a highly analytical style of thinking and learning — one which does well at dissecting things but often blinds us to the larger picture. This way of thinking is a factor contributing to many of our cultural ills. It also presents numerous opportunities that teaching wildlife tracking offers on a broader level to move us towards a more sustainable future.
In the Tracking Intensive, students complete a number of journals of tracks and signs of wildlife. The format, based on a design originally created by Jon Young, requires students to first create a series of maps of the context in which specific tracks are found. In so doing, they are forced to take a step back from the tracks (and, metaphorically, the individual animal) and take note of the ecological context in which it was found. Identifying animal tracks in this way gives an opportunity to take in the big picture and avoid just seeing dents in the ground.
Based on this idea of various scales of ecological awareness, I developed the “Tracker’s Funnel” (see image). The tracking funnel is presented at the start of Pacific Northwest Wildlife to help inspire a pattern of observing wildlife, and also at the beginning of the tracking classes I teach at Wilderness Awareness School as a foundational element of identifying animal tracks. You are not likely to find the tracks of a pika just anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. Pika occupy a certain habitat and within that habitat have certain preferences for each of their basic needs. Knowing this can both help you know where to look for pika and their signs, and identify unknown signs as pika in the field.
At the top of the funnel is the broadest perspective on our region, and at the bottom are the individual tracks or signs you have discovered. Analyzing tracks and signs at all of the levels mentioned here will help create the ecological context necessary to get a fuller picture of the story left by the animal, and have the best chance of accurately identifying animal tracks you find in the field. Starting at the top and working your way down will likely yield a much richer image of what you have found by the time you get to the bottom, back to the tracks or signs you started with.
Bioregion and Ecoregion
The Pacific Northwest is a vast and diverse bioregion spanning rainforests to alpine tundra to deserts. Topographic and climate influences allow our region to be further divided into various smaller ecoregions. Studying range maps for individual species can help you create a list of what to expect in a certain area or narrow down the possibilities of what you have found.
Within any ecoregion are a variety of habitats. For example, in the North Cascades high elevation, sub-alpine forests are a particular habitat. Within the sub-alpine zone there are meadows, forest edges, cliffs and talus fields. The pika mentioned earlier are strongly associated with subalpine talus fields.
Pay attention to what specific part of a habitat the tracks or signs are located in. Are you in the middle of a vast field of jumbled boulders, or right on the very edge, where the talus gives way to a flat, grassy, valley bottom? Either way this might give you important information about how the animal in question is using the landscape.
Track Pattern and Sign Pattern
Take all of the tracks or signs you have as a whole. Is there a pattern to them? Perhaps you notice that the grasses along the entire edge of the talus field are much shorter than the grasses further out in the valley.
Individual Tracks and Signs
After sifting through each of the above levels, come back to the initial marks that drew your attention and explore them in detail, and you will discover a whole new level of appreciation for and awareness of their maker! Hopefully this has made your journey of identifying animal tracks more accurate and more satisfying at the same time.