Fox tracks and coyote tracks are really hard to tell apart – especially in the snow! For our Fun Fact in this week’s podcast, naturalist Claire Dobie described how she helps kids determine the difference. Want to find out yourself? Well, I won’t leak the secret here, but ur-ine luck! Make a pee-line – I mean, a bee-line – to this week’s podcast. After my conversation with Jim DePompei, Claire fills us in. She’s our number one!
In All Seriousness…
Tracking is a great outdoor skill to teach, but also a great metaphor. As an outdoor educator, I loved teaching different track shapes. Scat – feces – can tell you a lot, too, like if it’s got fur in, the scat is from something that eats other animals. There’s a great Paul Rezendes book all about that art – how to read the natural area around you for its signs.
There’s a lot more to tracking, though. When I worked as an outdoor educator, I used a very broad definition of tracks – more than just prints and poop. To me, a track is anything that tells you what went before you. I remember one spot where our chaparral trail suddenly went through a cluster of willow trees – the only trees in that area that grew over our heads. Through some dialogue, I led my learners to discover that the willows were a kind of track, too – the water-loving willows were a sign that water ran collected along that part of the trail during the wet season.
Anything out of the ordinary can be a track. Start with learners’ everyday lives. A package on your doorstep? That’s a UPS driver track. A sour smell in front of the school? The cafeteria delivery truck just left.
Then you can move on to natural tracks. A large scar on a tree trunk? Some large animal put that there – look for signs of deer or vandalizing teenagers nearby. One particular spot where a lot of mushrooms are growing? Maybe something died there!
Another great place to start tracking activities are classic nature scavenger hunts. If you find a pine or cypress cone, look around – are there any trees nearby it might have come from? If not, then what is that cone – that track – telling you? How did that cone get there? You can start these hunts with a specific list (“something with 3 colors,” “a seed,” “3 feathers”). But your end goal is to get students to look for tracks you didn’t suggest – to look for “anything out of the ordinary.”
That’s the lesson of tracking: learning about what’s not there anymore by exploring what was left behind. It’s an incredible life skill, and one that demands the kind of novel environments that informal educators employ.