Nature reads like a good book. There are stories written all over outside; most people just haven't learned to read them. If you are reading this, someone taught you how.
You may have spent enjoyable afternoons as a child with adults reading books to you. You may have agonized through variations of ''Run, Spot, Run.'' Some teacher may have forced you to spend hours diagramming sentences.
Chances are, no one spent hours showing you how to look at the number of toes in an animal's track to identify the animal that was there. Most people never learn that the pattern of tracks an animal makes are like a sentence pointing to the animal that made them.
Raccoon tracks in the mud look like little hands. Audubon will be holding a tracking program on Feb. 25 from 10 a.m. to noon where participants will learn to identify tracks such as this.
Photo by Jeff Tome
Hunters are, of course, one exception. Many young hunters learn how to identify the tracks and signs of an animal that they are searching for, but many of the rest of us remain illiterate in the language of the earth.
Animals speak to us in tracks and signs. Odds are that you are not going to see a fox, coyote or most other animals on a hike through the woods.
Frankly, people are noisy, smelly beasts that advertise their presence to animals long before the animal can see them. People reek of perfume, cologne, mouthwash and soap. Any animal with a nose can smell most people coming, as long as the wind is blowing the smell to them. Even when we are quiet, we are noisy. Arms rub against coats, boots crunch and clump, cellphones ring and people chat as they walk in groups. All in all, it's hard to see animals on a walk outside.
There are some notable exceptions. Deer occasionally hold their ground and stare curiously at people. Squirrels, rabbits and chipmunks are out there. Other than that, most animals hide and wait for people to pass by, or come out at night when people are rarely around.
To know what is around, read the earth. Animals leave tracks, claw marks, rubs and other signs of their presence as they move around and live their lives. Different animals leave different signs. It's like learning the alphabet. Every track has its own look just like every letter in the alphabet has its own look. You probably don't even think about why the letter ''B'' looks like a ''B,'' but it does. Whether it's written by a sloppy kindergartner or a sophisticated adult, a ''B'' has a certain, special quality of ''B-ness'' to it.
The same is true of animal tracks. Once you recognize the track of an opossum, there is a certain sense of ''opossum-ness'' to the track. Opossums have five spread-out toes, a wide track and a special way of walking that makes the tracks look like they are zigzagging up the trail. There is no way to mistake an opossum track.
There are many things to look at if you find an animal track. Is it round or oval? How many toes are on the footprint? Do the front foot and back foot have the same number of toes? What you see gives you a lot of information on what the animal may be.
How is it moving? Do the tracks look like an animal that leaps or runs? Is it walking or jumping? How it moves gives you important information about what the animal is.
The best way to find out is to have someone help you. Audubon will be having a ''Winter Tracks and Signs'' program on Saturday, Feb. 25, from 10 a.m. to noon. The program will start inside to learn some tracks and signs to look for, then move out into the wilds of Audubon to see how many signs of animals can be found. The program costs $10 for Audubon members and $12 for non-members.
Audubon is a fantastic place to find animal tracks. A recent lunchtime jaunt revealed tracks of foxes, mice, squirrels, coyote, deer, chipmunk, river otters, mink, muskrat, mourning doves, and ... something else.
Sometimes a track does not fit in with anything you know, and that was the case with this track. The tracks were filled with snow, but seemed to have five toes. It was an animal that sometimes walked and sometimes bounded along. All in all, the tracks were peculiar.
And then, accidentally and totally out of curiosity, I violated my personal tracking code. We followed the animal to where it was spending the day in an old hollow tree. I don't like to follow animals to their homes for fear of stressing them out and forcing them to change homes in the cold or, worse yet, chase them through the woods without noticing that they are ahead of me.
Being a stinky, loud person, (as we all are) I might chase an animal that I never saw because it would stay so far ahead of me that I would only see the tracks.
In this case, since we had no idea what the animal was, we set up a game camera at the bottom of the tree to see what came down the next night. Unfortunately, the animal came down on the wrong side of the tree so we never got a photo.
While there are many ideas for what the animal could be, I'll not say anything till we know.
Instead of following an animal, I try to backtrack and see where the animal has been. Backtracking involves figuring out where was it before and why. Backtracking doesn't stress the animal at all, but still gives a glimpse into the animal's life. Where did it go? Why did it stop at that tree? Did it sleep here last night? There are amazing things to learn from where an animal has been.
There are amazing things to learn from almost any track. I followed a set of opossum tracks this morning. It wandered along the trail I was following, but suddenly went off into the bushes. In the bushes, there was a nice melted spot in the snow where it sat for some time looking out over a pond. Why? There were tracks on the other side of the pond that I couldn't make out. It may have stopped to watch another animal. It might have just stopped to take a break. There might have been food there, though I saw no sign of it. Maybe an owl flew over and the opossum was taking cover.
Tracking an animal sometimes brings on more questions than answers. It gives you a chance to walk a mile in an animals footprints, and, perhaps, learn a little bit about how they live.
Jeff Tome is a naturalist at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary, where he sees many interesting tracks in the snow. Audubon trails are open from dawn to dusk and free to the public. The center is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Monday, and 1:00 to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. Visit jamestownaudubon.org for more information.