When winter grips Chicago, many of us are looking for ways to keep our kids active. Animal tracking is one solution. It gets kids out of the house. And it also helps children to understand that even in an urban setting, there is wildlife.
"It’s good for them; to get outside, to realize that they don’t have to do everything in air conditioning or heat," says Julie Hansen, environmental activities coordinator for the Northbrook Park District.
Tracking can be done at any of the area forest preserves, parks or even your own backyard.
Some places, like North Park Village Nature Center, have naturalist-led tracking programs for families. Sarah Pearce, education naturalist at the center, suggests looking in places with fresh snow or any place that is wet, like fresh mud, too see a variety of tracks. Pearce says that common clues of animal activity include deer tracks, mouse tracks and mouse tunnels in the snow.
Conrad Drust, naturalist director at the Crabtree Nature Center recommends taking a trip to your local library or bookstore. "Most of the larger bookstores have numbers of field guides that are very simple as well as rather extensive," he says.
What animals can you find in the six county Chicago area?
When you look down, you can find many different types of animal tracks, including opossum, raccoon, white-tailed deer, grey and fox squirrels and even muskrat and beaver, according to Drust.
You can also find tell-tale signs of animal activity, such as chewed-on trees or acorn bits left behind by a foraging squirrel. Animal droppings, or scat, are another clue as to what animals are in the area. Take, for example, the coyote, "In their scat you’ll notice large amounts of fur, usually the cottontail [rabbit], or what’s left of the cottontail," says Drust.
Or look for densely packed owl pellets, which can sometimes be found on the ground, below a nest. They may contain small bones and fur of the owl’s recent prey.
Drust believes that animal tracking gives kids an opportunity to become good "nature detectives." Very often the markings you find, tell you a story. Odd marks in the snow might suggest a startled bird dragging his wing in a hasty getaway.
"It makes them good observers in the environment which they live," he says. "Certainly that goes beyond the natural world, but it’s a starting point."
Getting the kids outside gives them a chance to learn as well as to stretch out.
Says Hansen: "I try to let them explore as much as I can. That’s one of the most important things we do. They just enjoy that freedom, to be in a space where you can’t break anything."