Follow animal tracks this winter on a path to fun

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 whole family.

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 day-to-day existence.

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 tracking animals.

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.

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