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Washington State University

Hidden Highways – Engager: Skill Level Two

Hidden Highways

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ENGAGER – Skill Level: Two

Examining Tracks and Talons
Examining Tracks and Talons


Casting Animal Tracks


Objective: Utilize multiple methods for reporting animal sightings
Science Skills: Observation, deductive reasoning, measurement
Life Skills: Contributing to a group effort

Preparation Activities:

  • Review Safety precautions regarding wildlife
  • Review data collection sites in “Explore More”

What You Will Need

  • Strips of waxed cardboard (cut from milk carton) to make a collar 2 1/2 inches wide by 12 to 15 inches long
  • Plaster of Paris purchased at hardware stores, drug stores, or hobby shops
  • A mixing stick
  • A jar for storing the plaster
  • Two tin cans (one for water and one for mixing)
  • Water
  • Paper clips
  • Charcoal pencils
  • Paper
  • Science Journal

Animal Tracks
Have the youth identify an area near where you live where you believe wildlife might be moving. Remember, most wildlife moves at night. Regardless of the kind of animal you think you are likely to find, water and food will be two things that the wildlife will be seeking. A good preparation for understanding what to look for would be to review animal guides on the Northwest. The UW Nature Mapping program and University of Michigan Animal Diversity website are good resources for learning about different animals. (see Explore More)

You will be creating a “sand trap” for animal tracks in an area that you believe is being traffic by local animals.

Practice observing the local environment for signs of animal activity. (See the United States Search and Rescue Task Force website)

Making Track Casts
Once a suitable set of tracks have been identified then youth can practice 1) identifying the print and 2) drawing it. An alternative to drawing a print is to use thin paper and a charcoal pencil to do a rubbing impression of the print. If the print is strong, them the youth might enjoy make a plaster casting.

The method for making track casts is simple. First find a suitable track. The track should be deep enough to produce a solid cast and clear enough to reproduce. Remove all sticks and debris around the track. Make a circle around the print with the 2 1/2 inch-wide strip of cardboard; attach the ends with paper clips. Press the cardboard about 1/2 inch into the ground. The cardboard serves as an outer mold for the plaster. Pack some soil behind the cardboard for reinforcement.

Next, in the tin can mix the plaster of Paris with water while stirring with a stick until the mixture is the consistency of cream or pancake batter. A very thick plaster paste begins to set almost immediately. A thinner mixture gives you more time. If the plaster is too thick so that it doesn’t flow readily, it may dry too quickly and fail to reproduce some details of the feet. If too thin or watery, it will run all over the place, taking a long time to harden.

Now fill the track with the plaster, covering the inside mold to a depth of 1 inch below the top of the cardboard. When the plaster has been poured into the track, wait patiently for 10 minutes or more to allow it to set hard. It is not wise to attempt to pick up the cast too soon.

To pick up the cast after it is hard, cut around it with a knife, remove some dirt from under the edges all around the cast, then lift out the piece from a point well underneath the track. This cast is called a negative cast. Simply brush off the mud and dirt after the cast has had a day or more to harden.

(reprinted from New Mexico State University and adapted from Field Guide to Animal Tracks, by Olaus J. Murie, and Animal Tracks, by National 4-H Council, SW 438.)


Activity 2:

Make a Blind / Collect Data

Objective: Utilize multiple methods for reporting animal sightings
Science Skills: Observation, deductive reasoning, measurement
Life Skills: Personal safety and self-discipline

Why an animal would approach the safe edge of this corridor? What are they looking for? What do they need?

Based on what you learn about the particular animal you investigate, its food web, possible migration patterns and behavior, develop a hypothesis about why the animals might be approaching the edge of the vegetation.

In order to confirm the animals that you suspect are approaching the edge of their habitat you will want to build a blind. A blind is a structure you can hide behind so that wildlife do not avoid the area. (Wild animals have very sharp senses, and humans generally don’t do a good job of being quiet.) Blinds are often used by hunters or wildlife photographers.

The simplest ”blind” would be wearing camouflage. This isn’t all that effective though, since every time you move you might be spotted. Three basic types of blinds are:

  1. A lean-to: as simple as putting up a camouflage tarp between two trees with some rope. If it is windy, though, the plastic may rattle and scare off animals.
  2. A “tee-pee” structure made out of surrounding deadfall and brush, a good choice because it can also help cover human smells. Be sure to put all natural materials back where you found them when you are done.
  3. A box structure (some people recommend using PVC pipes and a camouflage fabric cover)

The more your blind disappears into the surrounding environment, the better!
Whatever structure you choose you will need to be able to sit comfortably inside for a while, and you will need holes out of which to see. Consider building a blind against a large tree you can rest your back up against.

To have a truly effective blind you will want to build it and leave it in the area for a few days. Animals will quickly become accustomed to it and then be more likely to move normally through the area.

Decide what kind of animals you are interested in researching. Refer to the “minimum patch area” grid below. (USDA, Southern Research Station) Remember an acre is about the size of a football field. So for example, if you wanted to see a deer, your odds would improve if you have at least 40 acres of passable habitat they could move through. If your edge is not frequented by wildlife, that isn’t necessarily a BAD THING. It may mean they have safer corridors through which to move.

Example Ranges of Minimum Patch Area

Taxa Patch Area
Leaf silhouette
5 to ≥ 250 ac
Butterfly silhouette
50sq ft to ≥ 2.5 ac
Frog silhouette
Reptiles and Amphibians
3 to ≥ 35 ac
Bird silhouette
Grassland Birds
12 to ≥ 135 ac
Duck silhouette
≥ 12 ac
Small Bird silhouette
Forest Birds
5 to ≥ 95 ac
Beaver silhouette
Small Mammals
2.5 to ≥ 25 ac
Elk silhouette
Large Mammals
40 ac to ≥ 2 sq mi
Bear silhouette
Large Predator Mammals
3.5 to ≥ 850 sq mi

Finished this Activity?

Complete this survey


Explore More


Track Card (pdf)

Audubon Society

WDFW “Living with Wildlife”

WDFW Whatcom Wildlife Areas

Wildlife Watch

UW Nature Maps

Google Earth


“If the environment changes, plants and animals must either move or adapt to the new conditions, or they will die. For example, in winter, some ducks and songbirds migrate (move), rabbits, frogs and many turtles adapt, and insects and weak animals may not survive. If an organism can survive, grow and reproduce under certain environmental conditions, we say that it has adapted to that environment. Adaptations are the special characteristics or features that increase an organism’s chance for survival and reproduction in that particular environment. So when the environment changes, organisms must change with it. If they don’t, they have to move, or they will die.”

Exploring Your Environment,
Eco-Actions Activity Guide,
National 4-H