This activity can be used with the EEK! story called, "Follow that footprint, paw print, hoof print..."
Wintertime is the perfect time of the year to get outside and look for signs of wildlife. Animals leave evidence in the snow such as burrows, droppings, fur or feathers, food litter, and of course their tracks. Tracks can also tell us a story about where the animal traveled from and where they went to. It may also give us clues about where the animal makes its home in the cold winter months and how active it is on particular days.
Animal tracks can be the basis for several types of investigations. Identifying the tracks that you and your students find will help fill in a species list of those animals found in your school yard area. Wildlife population estimates can be made from observing the number of tracks found during a specific length of time. Habitat requirements of individuals can be determined by finding their tracks in certain areas and not finding them in others.
Track hunting is really very easy. Just look in the snow near or under a brushy area or search a wooded area to find tracks of small animals. Larger animals may leave tracks in more open areas. Tracks can be preserved and collected by making plaster casts of them. This simple procedure will allow you to "collect" tracks and combine them with other evidence like bones, nests, or scats that you already may have collected.
Once these tracks have been observed or preserved, information about the animal that made them can be discovered. For example, all mammals have basically the same foot structure. They just use the parts in different ways. If we compare a raccoon or bear's feet to the human hand, we see that they are similar. They plant all four feet on the ground as if they were actually walking on their hands. Others walk or run on their toes, like cats and coyotes. Some larger mammals walk on their "toenails" or hooves like deer and elk. By looking at the track, we can determine what type of animal it is and how that animal lives. Simply observe what part of the foot it walks on, whether it has claws, how big the tracks are, and how far apart the tracks are from one another.
Clues to look for:
- Shape of track
- Pattern of tracks
- Measurements of tracks & distance between
- Direction of track
- Type of medium track was made in
- Freshness of track
Note: tracks in freshly fallen, shallow snow will show up better and more defined than in deep snow or "old" or non-fresh snow.
Materials for Plaster Tracks:
- Spray bottle
- Plaster of Paris
- Mixing container
- Black paint
- Take your class on a field trip to a nearby field, forest, lake, stream, or other natural area-somewhere where there will be lots of tracks. You may want to scout out an area ahead of time.
- Divide into small groups to find tracks. You may want to divide up groups according to specific areas to look such as: a meadow edge, pond edge, under brush, near trees. Prepare the students in advance to assist them in looking carefully and responsively.
- Once a track is found, clean it of litter if any is visible.
- Spray the track lightly with water. (the water should freeze making the track hard in preparation for a better casting.)
- Form a two-inch wide strip of cardboard or thin ring around the track. Press firmly into the snow to give it support, but allow at least one inch to form the edge of the mold for the plaster. Square forms can be made by cutting milk cartons horizontally, one of the easiest ways to make the forms! Simple round forms can be made by cutting both the top and bottom from a tuna or catfood can or margarine tub. Stapled strips of cardboard in the shape of a circle can also be used. Remember to ask your students to save these containers and bring them in from home. Its also a great reuse of trash items.
- Mix about two cups of plaster of Paris in a tin can or plastic bowl, adding water slowly until it is about as thick as heavy cream. Pour carefully into the mold until the plaster is about to the top. Allow plaster to harden at least 15 minutes before lifting it out of the track. If it is warm out and the snow is too wet, hardening may take longer.
- When the cast is hardened, lift the cast out, remove the ring and clean the cast by scraping it with a knife blade and washing.
- Back in class, apply a thin coating of vaseline to the track and surface of the cast. Place it on a flat surface and surround the casting with a two-inch strip of cardboard or tin as before.
- Mix plaster of Paris and pour it into the mold, making certain that that top surface is smooth and level with the mold. If you plan to use the casting as a wall plaque, place a loop of wire in back while the plaster is still soft. Scrape any rough areas with a knife or sandpaper.
- Carefully remove the mold when the plaster is dry. Separate the two layers and wipe the excess vaseline from the face of the cast and track. Smooth out any rough places as before.
- When the cast is dry, paint the inside of the track with black poster paint. Label each cast with the name of the track and the student's name. A coat of clear shellac will protect and preserve the casting.
- You may be able to obtain various animal feet or rubber replicas of feet from your local wildlife agency or nature center, or scientific supply company. The feet or replicas can then be used to make tracks and plaster casts. Use them to make tracks on a bulletin board poster and have students decorate it to look like the habitats you'd find each animal in. Make up a wildlife story and express it with the tracks on poster paper.
- Display the tracks according to the habitats in which you found them. How many were found near water, forests, fields, etc.?
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