You’re traipsing along a quiet trail and something catches your eye. It looks like [insert poop emoji], but who dropped it?
Wild animals leave distinguishing signs that give you clues to who was on the trail ahead of you. Wildlife signs include tracks, scat, beds, fur, rubs and scratches.
Look for tracks in soft dirt, mud and snow. Keep an eye out for wet prints on rocks. Here are two different types of tracks you might see:
Deer, elk, moose and mountain sheep leave hoof prints. Slight differences in size and shape will tell you what was trotting on the trail before you. Deer, sheep and mountain goats have the smallest prints. Sheep and goat tracks are more rounded on the ends than deer. Moose have slightly more rounded points than elk, and in general are larger prints.
Dogs, whether coyotes, wolves or domestic, leave prints of various sizes with noticeable nail marks. Observant trackers should look for these distinguishing differences: in general, wolves have the largest, rounded prints; coyotes’ prints are smaller, more pointed or oval. If you are on a heavily trafficked trail, it’s safe to assume a dog track is from a domestic dog.
Cats, including cougars, bobcats and lynx, are distinguished from dogs by the absence of nail prints, since cats can retract their claws. Cat tracks are rounder, and often don’t have sharp heel pad edges because of the fur on their paws.
Grizzly and black bear tracks are large and distinctive, and the difference between the two is noticeable since the claws on grizzly tracks are much longer and the toes are arranged in a straight line, whereas black bear tracks have angled toes and shorter claw marks.
Scat or Feces
The scat you come across on the trail can help you identify what visited before you. Animal feces can be divided into three categories by shape: kernels, turds and piles. Deer, elk, sheep, moose and similar animals leave kernels. Wolves, coyotes, foxes, bobcats and lynx leave turds. Bears (and cows) leave piles.
After determining the shape, consider the size, colour and contents of the feces to figure out what animal might have left it. For example, moose drop large oval shaped nuggets, but deer gift much smaller kernels to the trail, tear-dropped on one end and dimpled on the other. Cougars, wolves and coyotes leave hairy turds, the size proportional to the animal size. Domestic dogs will usually not have hair inside. Bear scat changes with their diet. In the spring when they are eating grass, it will be green and soft; when feeding on berries, their piles will be full of seeds.
Tip: use a stick to poke at feces for scat content!
Often, the easiest way to determine who was having a nap is to search the nearby surroundings for scat or tracks. Otherwise, think about the area and what is likely to inhabit it. Look at the size of the bed to decide if it was a deer or moose taking a snooze, for example.
While it’s nice to focus on scenic views, don’t forget to scrutinize the trail. Most animal signs—tracks, scat and beds—are left on the ground, including shed antlers. Every winter animals like deer, moose, elk and caribou drop and leave antlers behind.
For other clues, look to the trees and bushes and for cat or bear claw marks on trees, antler rubs where the bark is shredded and scraped off and clumps of fur stuck on thorns.
Trying to figure out what was on the trail before you adds another layer of adventure to a hike, enriching your nature experience and breaking up the grind of the switchback.
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