Ask a Naturalist: What’s an animal sign?


This article was written by Elizabeth Poulson, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Naturalist at North Mississippi Park

There are many wild animals that inhabit the wooded areas, fields and ponds of our urban backyard. Some of those animals are easy to spot like squirrels and sparrows while others are more difficult to seek out like owls and foxes. More often than not, wildlife activity is hidden from our view. Luckily for us, animals leave behind clues or signs wherever they go. With the landscape thawing as spring arrives, March can be one of the best times to look for evidence of the critters that live alongside us.

An animal sign is anything that tells you where that animal has been or provides information about what it has been doing. Animals leave behind many types of clues that can help us understand their behaviors. Perhaps the most common of animal signs are footprints. Frequently referred to as tracks, footprints offer a trail to follow of an animal’s movements. Along this trail, clues about animal feeding behaviors can be observed by looking at their scat, finding bite marks on plants, and discarded seed shells or feathers, fur tufts, and bones. Track trails can also lead to animal homes and shelters.

Begin your search in areas where animals might feed, bathe, drink or gather. To find tracks check in areas with snow, mud or damp sand next to waterways that animal footprints will leave a good impression in, this makes it easy to spot and follow the tracks. Walk carefully, you don’t want to step on and destroy the clues you are searching for.

You might begin to notice crisscrossing tracks across your yard, along trails or in fields. You might find evidence of animals feeding; for example, pine cone scales piled up under a tree or small bits of fur strewn about. You could also encounter animal homes such as a nest in a tree or small burrow holes in the ground. These signs are each a piece of the larger story of an animal’s behavior. As you put the clues together, with the help of your imagination, the story unfolds and you have a better understanding of the animal activities happening around you.

One of the best things about animal tracking is it can be done without any equipment. However, if you’re feeling like you want to step it up a notch, here are a few tools that can help along your journey. First, a field guide of animal tracks will help you determine the identity of the animal that made the track and gives more detailed information about footprint patterns — you can borrow one from the Nature Center for use in North Mississippi Park. Next, a ruler can be particularly helpful in identification because measuring the size narrows down the possibilities when tracks are similar in shape. Other useful tools can include a magnifying glass and binoculars.

If you decide to search for animal signs on your next walk through your neighborhood or in the park, there are a few things to keep in mind to stay safe. The animals you are tracking are still wild, including the ones in your backyard. Observing animals at a distance helps keeps them wild. If you discover a nest or scat on your tracking adventure, don’t touch it with bare hands as they could have bacteria, fleas or other pests.

Animal tracking is both a science that utilizes facts and observations to make deductions, and also an art that takes creativity and imagination to put the pieces of the story together. Tracking is a versatile activity, making it perfect for all ages. Everyone can head outdoors to search for animal signs any time of year without prior knowledge of tracking or the use of special equipment.

However, you can learn more about how to search for animal tracks and other signs by visiting the Nature Center at North Mississippi Park. Check out our animal tracking backpack to help you identify tracks, scat and other signs while exploring the park. If you discover a neat animal sign outside, then snap a picture and share it at kroeningInterpretativeCntr on Facebook. Join us for free naturalist programs offered each weekend. Have young children? Then try our Nature Nuts playgroup for kids under six and an adult to discover the outdoors and learn about seasons, plants, and animals.

March Public Programs—Free for all ages unless otherwise noted

March 2 –Bird Watching: Beginner Basics, 4-5:30 p.m. Curious about bird watching, but never knew how to start? Come learn the basics of watching birds.

March 9 –Eagles on the River, 1:30-2:30 p.m. Learn about our national bird and look for these majestic predators along the river.

March 17 –Leprechaun Secrets, 1-3 p.m. Learn the ways of the woods by following leprechaun clues! Discover tricks that plants and animals use to thrive in the wild.

March 21 –Homeschool Day: Healthy Habitats. Discover animal homes in the park, build your own and learn how to protect the homes of our animal friends.

March 23 –Nature Art: Earthen Art, 2-3 p.m. Get down in the dirt to make sensational soil-based art. The earth beneath your feet is a fun medium to create a piece of art.

March 31 —Family Funday: Spring Arts and Animals, 1-3 p.m. Come learn about our neighborhood native species. Meet some MN animals up-close and create spring themed artwork.

Find registration for these programs and more at or call 612-370-4844 for details. Do you have a question about nature in your own backyard? Then send it our way by emailing and it could appear in a future article. Like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at your park.