Next time a fresh snowfall blankets the Chicago
area, don't curse another Midwestern winter. Instead, bundle up the
kids and introduce them to animal tracking. This outdoor detective
work is an excellent physical and intellectual exercise for the
Tracking animal prints is part treasure hunt, part nature
hike. Head to a forest preserve or other natural area (such as
Morton Arboretum) in search of evidence that animals have been
busily leading their lives right under our noses. By observing
animal footsteps, we can "spy" on them and gather clues about their
In the greater Chicago area, be on the lookout for the
following types of animal tracks: cats, raccoons, rabbits, dogs,
birds, squirrels and maybe even deer. When tracking animals,
encourage your kids to imagine what the animal might have been up
to. Try to "walk" in the animal's footsteps and search for clues
about their daily activities. Keep your eyes peeled for possible
food or water sources, dens and nests or even scat (a fancy word
for animal poop).
John Elliott, education manager for the Forest Preserve
District of Cook County, says any of the Forest Preserve District's
nature centers are prime areas for viewing animal tracks. He
specifically recommends: Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington, Sand
Ridge Nature Center in South Holland and Little Red Schoolhouse
Nature Center in Willow Springs. Elliott encourages visitors to
reach out to the naturalists at each for more information on
Consider bringing along a camera or sketch pad and pencils
to capture the tracks you see. Don't leave home without a handy
reference guide so you can look up more information on any
perplexing marks that you find. Good reference guides include the
Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks and
Animal Tracks: An Introduction to the Tracks & Signs of
Familiar North American Species (A Pocket Naturalist Guide) by
James Kavanaugh. Visit bear-tracker.com for helpful photos and
illustrations of different animal tracks.
Caitlin Murray Giles is a full-time mother of three and part-time freelance writer living in Wicker Park.
See more of Caitlin's stories here.
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