(Review) Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks & Sign by Paul Rezendes

September 27, 2013

Related to the issue of how to see, which is the subject of natural vision, is the idea of what to see or what to look for. Since our visual field is so crowded, we must necessarily be selective in what we take notice of. Yet modern humans have developed an insouciance about the natural environment which reflects a belief that there is nothing important to take notice of.

A coyote on his daily trot through highly familiar territory gleans a great deal of information about what has transpired since he last made the rounds. He knows not only what types of animals have passed through, but how long ago they were there, where they came from, where they went, and what they did in that particular spot. True, a lot of the coyote’s information comes from his superior sense of smell, which we cannot hope to emulate, but with our primary tool of perception, our vision, we can also discern these stories. Seeing an animal is a gift, yet recognizing the signs of an animal traversing the vicinity is also valuable information that can lead to future sightings. And identifying the name of the animal is only part of the equation; the signs also point to a story about that animal.

Deer browse.
Deer browse.

Paul Rezendes’s Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign is an excellent book for learning what to look in the natural environment. Individual tracks in mud, sand, or snow are obviously important and can sometimes lead to identification, yet the track pattern provides better information for identification and tells a fuller story: how many animals, their size, where they were going, how fast they were going, where they stopped, possibly where they died as a large bird swooped down from above.
Goshawk pellets
Goshawk pellets.

Some of the other things to look for on a nature walk are signs of feeding (such as twigs or net casings), scat, and scent markers (which usually have visual as well as olfactory clues). Becoming aware of these signs can give you a better idea of the animals that live in your neighborhood. Even if you live in a city, there may be more coyotes, foxes and possums nearby than you realize. Organizations that monitor wildlife populations have begun utilizing tracking information as a more reliable gauge for numeric estimations than visual sightings and trapping of live animals.

Gray fox tracks.
Gray fox tracks.
Even if you have no desire or opportunity to engage in serious tracking on your own, you will learn a great deal about animal behavior by reading a tracking book. My only quibble with the Rezendes book is that he discusses mainly land animals and says very little about birds. There is, however, another excellent book about bird tracking, Bird Tracks and Sign by Mark Elbroch and Eleanor Marks. Another book about what to notice when studying birds is What the Robin Knows by Jon Young.