Identifying animal sign can increase your odds when hunting

biggame hunter1_201_a.jpeg
Creative Commons Licence
Roger Phillips/Idaho Fish and Game

Looking for signs of game and knowing how to read them can mean the difference between a stocked or empty freezer. Tracks, rubbings and scat (droppings) are all valuable clues. Reading animal sign is a bit like reading a mystery novel. You discover clues then use those clues and your knowledge to discover “who-done-it.” It’s exciting and challenging!

Reading animal sign can be a bit tricky. For example, how old is the track, rubbing or scat? It might not be possible to get an exact time when a sign was left, but you can get an idea if a sign is relatively new or many months old. Here are some tips to help you and a few details about members of the deer family.

mule_deer_tracks_
Creative Commons Licence
IDFG

Tracks: New tracks will have sharp edges; older tracks will have rounded edges and look larger from erosion. Look at tracks for dried water drops or dried water lines. If it has been months since the last rain, you know those tracks are old.  

Scat: The way scat appears will vary with what the animal has eaten. Generally, herbivores (plant eaters) will have a looser scat when eating spring and summer plants that contain a lot of water. Think about a cow pie shape instead of a jellybean shape. Stabbing scat with a stick and breaking it open can help you determine if the scat is newer or older. Fresh scat will be darker in color. Dry, crumbly scat was most likely deposited months prior to your discovery. 

bull moose
Creative Commons Licence
NOAA 200th Photo Contest

Rubbings: Members of the deer family rub their antlers on trees to remove velvet from antlers and to mark an area with scent. Fresh rubbings will feel wet and have sap oozing from the rubbed area. Look below a rubbing for strips of removed bark. If the bark pieces are dry or faded in color, the rubbing is fairly old. The side of the tree the rubbing is on will tell you the direction the animal was traveling when it stopped to leave its mark. 

 

Moose

moose_bull
Creative Commons Licence
Kevin Noble on unsplash

Tracks: 

moose_track
Creative Commons Licence
flickr

• Front track: 4⅜” - 7” long; 3¾” – 6” wide  

• Rear track: 4⅛” – 6½” long; 3½” – 4⅝” wide 

• Heart-shaped; point in direction of travel

• Front track larger than rear track

• Slightly asymmetrical

Scat:

moose scat
Creative Commons Licence
Kevin Harber cc on flickr

• Pellets ½” –  ⅞” in diameter; ⅞” – 1¾” long

• Rounded or block-like 

• May be patties when feeding on wetland vegetation

Rubs:

bull moose
Creative Commons Licence
Tim Lumley cc flickr

• 15” – 8’ off the ground; usually long strips pulled from trees

• Bushes and shrubs with numerous broken branches and stripped bark from thrashing head from side to side

 

Elk

elk_bull_-_cow_image_by_siggy_nowak_from_pixaby
Creative Commons Licence
Siggy Nowak from Pixaby

Tracks:

elk_track_katie_theule_usfws
Creative Commons Licence
USFWS

• Front track: 3” – 4⅞” long; 2⅝” – 4⅝” wide

• Rear track: 2½” – 4½” long; 2⅜” – 4” wide

• Front track larger than rear track 

• Hooves are rounded; sometimes pointed with wider tips

Scat:

elk_scat_cc_on_flickr
Creative Commons Licence
flickr

• Oval-shaped pellets ⅜” – ⅝” diameter; ½” – 1½ ” long

• May look like cow pies  5” – 6” in diameter when eating wet vegetation 

• May have a dimple at one end and a point at the other end 

Rubs: 

tree nursery deer rub damage depredation December 2007
Creative Commons Licence
IDFG

• 14” – 6½’ off the ground on small-diameter trees

• 2” – 5’ off the ground on wider trees 

• Hair often found on trees 

 

Mule and White-tailed Deer 

Signs look similar and can be difficult to tell apart. 

mule deer
Creative Commons Licence
Brain Lawless IDFG

 

Tracks:

mule deer tracks
Creative Commons Licence
Adare Evans IDFG

• Front track: 2¼” – 4” long; 1⅝” – 2¾” wide

• Rear track: 2” – 3½” long; 1½” – 2⅜” wide 

• Front track larger than rear track 

• Heart-shaped; point in direction of travel

Scat:

mule deer scat
Creative Commons Licence
IDFG

• Elongated or semi-round pellets ½” – ⅝” diameter; ½” – 1” long 

• Highly variable

• May have a dimple at one end and a point at the other end 

Rubs:

white-tail deer rubbing tree with antlers
Creative Commons Licence
USFWS

• Mule deer 10” – 4’ off the ground 

• White-tailed deer 8” – 3½’ off the ground on smaller trees and willows

• Hair usually not present 

mule_deer_tracks_
Creative Commons Licence
IDFG