Tracking animals at Lake Merritt

Animal tracking... fun for the whole family! Photo: Lucas Morgan

Animal tracking... fun for the whole family! Photo: Lucas Morgan

by Lucas Morgan

Saturday, March 19: It’s a beautiful, sunny day at Lakeside Park in Oakland, California. There’s a slight breeze, and the sounds of gulls, dogs and children can be heard from all directions. I’m with a group of strangers and we’re standing in a circle. As we all introduce ourselves and mention what we’d like to accomplish today, it’s Marley Peifer’s turn to speak. Marley is an artist, author and naturalist, and he’s here today to pass along his knowledge of animal tracking to this group of eager students.

“Tracking is about stories, and we need to find answers to the whole story,” he says.

From the outset, Marley makes it clear that tracking is more than just looking at footprints on the ground. He mentions Sherlock Holmes, literature’s greatest tracker, and notes that making observations and asking questions are the most important aspects of tracking. For beginners, it’s best to save your inferences for later and to initially just take in the scene you’re investigating.

Huddled around a patch of mud, Marley asks the group what we see.

“It looks like a labyrinth!” a little girl says with excitement.

Someone mentions that they see what seems to be a three-toed marking. As people start to make guesses as to what may have left it, Marley stops them.

“Try not to jump ahead,” he says. He wants us to make some observations. For instance, you might note how wet or dry the mud is. Water is an important tool for trackers, as the process of evaporation enables you to estimate how long ago a mark was made.

Many inquiries follow.

What kind of animal was it? Where was this animal going? Where was it coming from? Was there more than one? Was the animal walking or running? When was the animal here? Did it stay here long or was it just passing through?

These are all important things for the novice tracker to ask. Marley again reiterates that tracking is all about stories. He mentions that, “[the mud patch] is like a hole in the wall at a movie theater and we’re peering through it trying to get the whole story.”

We move to another mud patch and notice many interesting clues, but focus our attention on two particulars. The first is a paw print that looks to be either canine or feline. Marley notes that in relation to the toes, felines’ heels tend to be bigger than canines’. Feline paws are also less symmetrical than those of their canine friends (or enemies).

To help ID this print, Marley whips out some tools: a pair of wooden kebab sticks. These are great tools for tracking because you can use them to perform rudimentary biometric analysis. Marley takes the thin skewers and places them in an “X” shape, going diagonally between the toe marks. The sticks fit perfectly between the toes, a sign of symmetry that leads us to conclude the print was probably left by a canine, most likely a small dog.

We turn our attention to a pile of scat (animal poop). It’s the ubiquitous green and white mound that people across North America are very familiar with: that of the Canada goose. We learn that the white stuff is uric acid, the main waste-part of bird and reptile urine. Marley mentions that birds and reptiles cannot defecate and urinate separately like humans do; it all comes out together. So anytime you see a pile of droppings with white and other colors, a bird or reptile could have left it.

Next on our list is the subject of gaits, the different ways in which animals walk. Marley constructs an impromptu “tracking box“ in the sand near the shore of Lake Merritt, made with a rake in the same way that a golfer fixes his or her footprints after they’ve left a sand trap.

Marley raked this space clear so we can see the difference between walking footprints and running footprints. He draws a line down the middle so that one of the youngsters of the group can walk through one side, and run through the other.

After the actions are completed, it’s clear to see the differences between the tracks. There are about 3-4 walk prints for every run print. No surprise, but it helps to be able to see the differences side-by-side so that in the future we may be able to tell if an animal we’re tracking was running or walking.

As you can tell, reader, we didn’t really learn about specific animals and their corresponding prints. We learned to never assume. To always be open to change. To challenge our beliefs. To question and observe. To slow down. To take in the whole scene.

We learned to think like a tracker.