HomeArticlesKevin A. GardnerWildlife DetectiveThe Wildlife Detective

Author: Kevin A. Gardner

The pursuit of wildlife has been a part of human activity for almost as long as man has existed. The art of tracking and finding wildlife was a matter of life or death once upon a time, but today is for the most part recreational. Imagine the focus and care that would apply to satisfying a need to survive in counter to one of will to enjoy wild table-fare. Truly the hunter of days gone by with primitive means and supposed greater abundance of animals had different and unique challenges, one fact remains that finding that game in all conditions and during all seasons was crucial.

Primitive man was much closer to nature by virtue of having to live among wild things and adjusting his movements accordingly. When game rich valleys dried up, man moved with the game to the next best draw or mountain to continue to provide for himself. When situations or decisions dictated that travel was not to be, the existence of the community could very well be in jeopardy. This was unfortunately a trial and error form of education, which actually helped man pay much closer attention to his wildlife movement, and the animal evidence that was left for him to follow. We are not incredibly different today in our processes than primitive man, but we have lost a great deal of ability to understand and follow evidence that may have been very obvious to him as he casually moved through his environment.

This evidence of wildlife is all around us when traveling in wild places. Primitive man became very adept at recognizing every piece of that evidence and quickly formulating his ideas of where and when to find animals. Today we readily recognize less than half of that evidence instinctively and must be trained to see the remaining pieces if we even have the desire. How to see and what to look for being the key, emerges the wildlife detective, we can begin to identify and seek out the pieces of evidence that will tell the story of recent wildlife activity. All sign combined and used to piece together these outdoor puzzles are considered evidence. Evidence is what is left behind that can be detected

In breaking down a plan to learn and pattern wildlife today, there are a few categories that should be given consideration for a serious in-depth understanding of the basics of nature detection. Some of these categories are animal necessities that should be studied and fully understood before you will be able to accurately determine if an area holds them. Other categories are sign or evidence-of-use type of topics that can hold great rewards when mastered over time. These categories include food, water, cover, tracks, scent and scat. The topics combined cover most of the evidence of use by animals as well as the predictable potential of an area to hold animals at specific times of year.

It is recommended that the aspiring observers take each category in order and slowly work toward mastering the detecting and understanding of the subject. Once each process is fully understood, you will no longer need to see animals in an area to know that they exist and at what frequency. Taking some of these topics to extreme levels of mastery will even begin to allow you to formulate specific details about things like size, hierarchy and dominance. Let’s first look at the three main necessities items:

Food is obviously a major factor for wildlife. Sometimes food is easy to identify; for example acorns scattered across a bed of fallen leaves. Occasionally food is more challenging to see, such as nipped vegetation or grasses. Even further complicating can be food sources that are more animate, like ground squirrels, rabbits or field mice. Whatever the case, being able to identify the food requirements (and available sources) of what you seek will be one of the major contributors in locating it.

The adage is that if you do not have water, don’t eat. It takes water to break down food in the digestive system and eating can lend itself to dehydration. This is a bit more impacting in a being such as a human that takes a considerable and consistent source of water to sustain life. Wildlife, an elk for example, being a large animal can sustain itself for extended periods of time on just the dew from morning grasses. A human needs water that they can drink in quantity with preference to water with a higher quality. With these two extremes, you have a spectrum of potential water needs in the animal you are seeking, but what is most noteworthy is the understanding of the tolerance of the subject versus the existing water source. Just because a highly migratory animal can last for extended periods of time without water does not mean that it will choose to do so on any regular basis. Locate and identify consistent water sources and their proximity to food sources, while gaining a basic understanding of the quality/quantity requirements of your target.

Cover too can be ambiguous region to region even within a similar species. The most important type of cover for animals is thermal cover. This cover category is often confused or associated with heat, as we seem to picture heat mentally when we hear the word thermal. Contrary to that normal thought process, thermal cover can mean cover from either cold or hot conditions as it may apply to the existing season.

Cover is any type of condition used by an animal to regulate its body temperature or to protect it from weather or its predators. When seeking traditionally non-migratory animals, cover will usually be close to either a primary food source or water source depending upon the level of complacency of the animal. Complacency is the animal’s innate desire to follow patterns that can become predictable.

Bedding areas are also very important aspects of cover. Very few animals of prey will bed themselves in cover that does not allow for a certain degree of ability to hear, see or smell approaching danger. Likely then, it would not be in the best interest of an animal to bed along a noisy and rapidly flowing river where approaching danger would not be easily detected. Day bedding or source bedding (where an animal has bedded in proximity to a particular source of food, water or other activity) as a temporary means can and has put many people in far too close proximity to animals like bears that may be feeding from a stream. Again, this is a temporary activity that the animals can use, but likely not as a primary cover source.

These three major categories of animal need are really the basis to understanding how to locate them in any condition, as the requirements are daily. The interaction of the animal with the environment as it moves through these daily needs is what the observer should be keying in on next.

Tracking can be as fine an art as the observer is willing to discipline himself or herself to mastering. Animal tracks are the most obvious sign that will capture our attention, but shortly beyond specie identification is the end of what most can accomplish when they locate the sign. Tracking can be for the obvious, a hoof or footprint in soft soil, and serve the purpose of determining the direction of travel. As well, tracking can be more finite, such as observing pathways in morning dew covered grasses and determining direction of travel by how the grass is laid over. Or how dust is displaced on a solid rock surface by a passing animal even the size of a mouse. Tracking is truly seeing by sign and a science that is worth consideration as something to seek to master.

The freshness or lack of freshness in a track or trail is key information to determining the likelihood of catching up to an animal or identifying if the animal’s activity was recent in the area. This is another part of tracking that takes discipline and a great deal of “dirt time” to be able to learn. How rapidly a track or sign deteriorates is affected by so many variables that things such as recent weather patterns may have an incredible impact on the evidence. A track in snow, for example, will deteriorate at different speeds based on temperature, direct sunlight and even the consistency of the snow-pack. It would be crucial to submerse oneself in the learning process of tracking. With the type of knowledge to decipher track and sign you can definitely close a great deal of gaps between you and your subject.

Nothing can move through nature without disrupting it nor can anything move through nature without nature recording it, scent is no exception. When a bedding area was located by primitive man, he was likely down on the ground smelling the bed for two things, freshness of the odor to determine a time-frame of use and to further condition his sense of smell for that animal. Elk, once you have spent some time with them, will become easier to smell in the wilderness than to see when approaching them. Over time mans ability to detect scent has diminished by virtue of a lack of need to survive by it, but it is still a very important sense when it comes to locating wildlife.

It is likely that you will not be able to pick up scent from a casual brushing of grasses by a deer, but other animals with much keener senses of smell can follow that track hours later. Bedding areas are great sources of scent and should never be passed without a thorough review. Predators that rely heavily on scent, feed from bed to trail and press animals to the point of exhaustion before ever making a true concerted effort to overtake the animal. This weakens the animal’s ability to defend itself and allows the predator to get glimpses of the animal as it pursues it. Starting early in the morning and locating active bedding sites, then tracking from that area slowly will allow the persistent observer the eventual look at the quarry. Take this lesson and use your sense of smell to record and assist you in processing scent evidence.

Scat tells a much greater story than is given credit. While it is unappealing to handle and dissect, it is a short story in recent activity. Scat will offer the food source that has been not only available, but also obtainable over the last 24-36 hours. Scat containing meat will have a stronger odor and consistency than scat containing vegetation. Moisture in scat will allow scat to clump or “Patty” where a lack of moisture will pelletize or cause broken or fragmented samples. This can be indicators of range usage, for example and elk that has waffered or patty type of scat is likely getting lusher vegetation and is likely on a summer type of range. Where pelletized elk scat can be indicative of winter forage and can elude to the time of year the area is commonly used by that animal.

There is a fine balance that must be kept during this type of activity as well. Engulfing oneself in their surroundings is ultimately the way to wild things, but remembering not to over indulge in observation to the point of blundering upon animals or worse yet, losing ones way would be important.

In conclusion, this was not an article to elaborate on each subject matter fully, but to set a course to follow to achieve mastery of the six most relevant tools used to locate animals in all conditions. Below are a few suggestions for further study to be used as aids along side of actual activity to better hone your wildlife detection ability.

“The Science and Art of Tracking”, by Tom Brown
“Skulls and Bones”, by Glenn Searfoss
“ National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals”, National Audubon Society

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