Mammal Tracks and Sign of the Northeast

University Press of New England, 2003 Softcover, 137 pages, $16.95
University Press of New England, 2003
Softcover, 137 pages, $16.95

You’re out on skis, crossing a field of powder. Or maybe it’s a warmer time of year, and you’re paddling along a muddy lakeshore. You think you’re the first one there. Then you spy footprints.

Who made them? If the tracks don’t reveal the imprint of skis, snowshoes, or Vibram soles, odds are you’re following something that walks or hops on four legs. But what? Here you must know how to track.

The best way to learn tracking is simply to get out there and do it. Look. Ask questions. Sleuth until you find the answers. No prior knowledge required. Of course, it helps to have a mentor, some old woodsman or woodswoman who can teach you to tell a red squirrel’s track from a flying squirrel’s and who can help you read the meaning in tracks—for example, to see a set of prints and know whether the animal that made them was bounding, running or creeping. Anyone can head out into the 6 million-acre tracker’s classroom called the Adirondack Park. Not everyone has access to a mentor. Lacking one, here’s the thing to do: Get thee to a bookery.

Two outstanding tracking guides have recently found their way to market. Each has much to recommend it for use in the Adirondacks, even though the books could hardly be more different. But first, let’s consider another new volume of interest to trackers of all stripes: Mammals of North America, by Roland W. Kays and Don E. Wilson (Princeton University Press, 2002). After all, before making a serious attempt to track wild mammals, it behooves the beginner to gain knowledge of the animals themselves—to learn how to know them by sight, to have a sense of what they eat and where they sleep.

For years, the best and most widely used mammal field guide has been the Field Guide to Mammals, by William Henry Burt and Richard Philip Grossenheider, in the Peterson field guide series. This book is still a valuable component of a naturalist’s library, but the initial publication date of 1952 makes it a fossil. Some species names have changed, a few mammals have been reclassified, and the format of the book often puts text, range maps and illustrations on separate pages. The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals, first published in 1980 and revised in 1996, also has merit. However, like the Peterson guide, it puts information and illustrations in separate places. The Audubon guide features photos of mammals rather than schematic paintings. In principle, this sounds like a good idea. In practice, the images vary widely in quality and many of them are useless when you’re trying to separate one mammal from the next.

Now we have Mammals of North America, which is superior to both books. Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum in Albany, and Wilson, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian, have produced an up-to-date field guide that’s gorgeous to behold and wonderfully easy to use. No blurry or ambiguous photos here. Each species is illustrated by a handsome painting that highlights exactly the features you need to recognize the animal in the field.

Mammals of North America follows the trend of recent bird field guides in juxtaposing, on facing pages, text and maps with corresponding illustrations. This is an enormous help and will prevent you from wondering whether you’ve seen a Merriam’s chipmunk on the trail up Mount Marcy. Clinton Hart Merriam spent time in the Adirondacks, but the chipmunk named for him lives only in California.

Diane Gibbon’s book includes life-size drawings of animal tracks (reduced here).
Diane Gibbon’s book includes life-size drawings of animal tracks (reduced here).

If I have one criticism, it’s that the book is almost completely bereft of information about the lives the animals lead. In field guides, however, such a defect can be a virtue. The lack of background information means the book is thin enough to slip into a pocket or daypack. You’ll never know it’s there until you need it. If you want to know more about the mammals you’re learning to recognize, track down a copy of The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals (Smithsonian, 1999).

All right. You’ve boned up on Adirondack mammals and you’re eager to track them. Where to turn for a little coaching?

Diane K. Gibbons’s Mammal Tracks and Sign of the Northeast (University Press of New England, 2003) is a fine place to start, especially if you’re a beginner. For one thing, the book’s cheap at $16.95. Compare that to the $44.95 cover price of the other tracking book we’ll consider here and you’ll recognize the bargain. Gibbons also keeps a tight focus on the subjects at hand: the tracks and poop (naturalists call it “scat”) that are a mammal’s most conspicuous calling cards. There’s none of the trendy “tracking will elevate you to a higher plane of existence” stuff that clutters many a tracking book these days. Gibbons simply wants to teach you how to do it. If you want to make more of the experience, that’s your business, not hers.

The things I like best about Mammal Tracks and Sign of the Northeast, aside from its crisp focus, are the life-size drawings of tracks and the detailed information organized beside them. There’s no hunting for fine print in this book. Everything you need to know is right there, up front. No mistaking the size of a moose track here, for example. Other tracking books give you a scaled-down version. Gibbons spreads a moose footprint over three-quarters of a page!

How to tell a red fox’s track from a gray’s? Gibbons makes it wonderfully clear. Her pencil drawings show the distinct narrow bar that marks the hind portion of the tracks cast by the red fox’s front feet. Gray fox foreprints lack this feature.

My only complaint with Gibbons is the uneven quality of her drawings of the mammals who make the tracks. For some species, they’re missing. Those she chose to include range from gorgeous (her opossum is perfect) to grim (a gray fox that looks like it has a bad case of indigestion). Still, her book, outstanding overall, stands out in a crowded field. I heartily recommend it.

I also send up a cheer for Mark Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species (Stackpole Books, 2003). When I first picked up this fat but compact book, I was shocked by its nearly $50 price tag. Then I looked inside.

Elbroch crams everything including the kitchen sink into his book, and a fine kitchen sink it is. There are tracks. There are gait patterns. There are photos of just about every kind of mammal spoor: scats, runways, beaver channels, “eskers” (a clever word for the raised ridges left behind at winter’s end by voles and pocket gophers), beds, wallows, scratching posts, burrows, dens, dust-bathing sites, tree nests, gutted acorns, buck rubs, twigs gnawed by beavers, and more. The book is far too heavy to carry in a pack. But it’s perfect for home use and for hauling around in a car. From now on, I doubt I’ll ever travel in North America without it.

The sheer volume of Elbroch’s material represents a potential disadvantage. The reader, especially the beginner, could easily be overwhelmed. There are places where the text could have been pruned without significant loss. At times Elbroch digresses from the matter at hand and holds forth on the prominent trackers he knows. This failing can be chalked up to youthful enthusiasm. You can tell by reading this book that tracking has become the center of Elbroch’s life, and he loves every bend of the trail.

My favorite things about Mammal Tracks and Sign are its audaciously thorough coverage of the subject and its beautiful color photographs of mammal sign. Many of these images make you want to hurry outdoors and see the subjects for yourself. Some of the photos of tracks aren’t terribly clear, but then, anyone who has ever looked at tracks in the field knows how murky they often are. Elbroch spends a great deal of time helping the reader understand the various gaits employed by mammals in moving from here to there. This, too, is a plus.

On the downside, the author’s name-dropping detracts from his mission, and so, at least to my taste, did his repeated reference to tracking schools, ones where you can go and pay to learn from “experts.” I would be dismayed to see animal tracking become yet another component of the market economy, something to which you buy access at a price.

Tracking is fun. Tracking is free. It’s something you do on your own, or with your kids or your friends. Track whenever you please, wherever you are, for nothing. There are no rules or licenses or experts. Everyone’s a student. Follow those footprints in the snow or the mud for the joy and challenge of the chase.