Life on Earth

Mammal Tracks & Bird Tracks & Sign

How to see the unseen

Mark Elbroch is a young tracker quickly gaining a reputation for his obsessive devotion to craft and comprehensive style of seeing. He once spent a whole New England winter tracking a single red fox — which wound up tracking him! More than stories, Elbroch offers an astounding encyclopedia of observed animal signs and visualizations that are the most helpful I’ve ever seen. Pages and pages of life size paw prints, a whole long chapter of diverse specialized burrows, dens, nests, and cavities — many in life size — and all photographed. Elbroch is not only an ace naturalist, but a fabulous communicator. He must sleep with his camera because he captures every nuanced disturbance on film. There’s distinguishing scat, urine and other secretions, by species. And most wonderful of all, several hundred pages on feeding patterns left by each mammal on vegetation and prey. This immense guide (almost 800 pages of full color illustrations and images) is by far the most ecological of any tracking guide ever written. It shows you how to see animals through their effects upon the other living organisms around them. The amount of knowledge, respect, and insight packed into this brick of a book is stunning. I’m sure it will become a classic.

Equally astounding is a companion book on bird signs. Imagine going birdwatching without looking at birds. All you inspect are the ripples each bird makes as it disturbs the environment in its daily routine. At first the ripples are faint, but soon with practice they swell in size and plenty until they seem a wave that all but shouts out the bird’s identification. That’s the Elbroch way of seeing.

These fat books, lovingly published by Stackpole Books, will change the way you walk in the woods.

— KK

Mammal Tracks & Sign
A guide to North American Species, by Mark Elbroch, 2003, 792 pages

Bird Tracks & Sign
A guide to North American Species, by Mark Elbroch and Elearnor Marks, 2002, 464 pages


Negative space. The spaces between the toes, between the toes and palm pads, and between the individual interdigital pads form shapes that are incredibly useful to track detectives. I often look for an X, H, or C shape to help distinguish feline and canine tracks. The front tracks of gray foxes and domestic dogs tend to show an H, while those of red foxes and coyotes show an X. Look for a C in the front tracks of cats.


Finding a hair. This is an exercise I have practiced over the years to help myself look deeper. Whenever I sit down in the woods, I won’t allow myself to stand until I’ve found a hair within approximately an 8-inch-square patch of earth. When I’m relaxed, it’s a short exercise, but when I’m tense, it may last 30 minutes. When I’m struggling, it’s usually just after I’ve proclaimed that I’ve finally found the first piece of earth devoid of animal hair that I find the first one. The second one is easy.


A great horned owl has swooped and picked up a mouse.


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