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Guidebook offers insight on animals

‘Mammal Tracks & Sign’ by Mark Elbroch with contributions by Casey McFarland

Ten years ago I attended a tracking workshop in the eastern Adirondacks. An instructor led us through the woods, noting feather marks left by a landing grouse on the snow, a melted area where a bobcat had rested, the wandering bounds of a weasel. I hadn’t tried to imagine the lives of absent creatures before, but seeing those possibilities was a thrill. I wanted to know more, see more, watch more.

Since then, I’ve become a professional guide, so I spend lots of time tracking and watching animals. When Mark Elbroch’s new reference came out, I was excited to review it. It’s called Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species, from Stackpole Books. When the National Outdoor Book Award panel selected it for their guidebook category, they called it an “instant outdoor classic.”

It is, as far as I can tell, the best book ever written on the topic. Mark is a world-class tracker and he communicated clearly in this rigorous, hard-facts book. As a discipline, tracking combines sharp observation with a lot of empathetic guessing. The better we visualize what the creature might want — or what it might be afraid of, or where it’s headed — the better we can predict what kind of signs to look for. The better we see, the more clearly we can imagine, and vice versa. Unfortunately, a lot of tracking literature leans heavily into the imaginative zone, prioritizing a psychic or spiritual connection with creatures over the physical evidence. Elbroch easily sidesteps this awkward, new-agey cousin of real tracking. Grounded in precise observation, lots of photos, and countless days in the field, this book is the new standard for both the amateur and professional tracker. Elbroch is based in Washington but has worked and taught throughout the country (as well as extensively in Africa and South America), so it’s also the definitive reference for the Northeast.

In addition to a precise and thorough survey of all North American mammal tracks, Elbroch covers a variety of sign — runs and paths, scat and urine, nests and lodges, marks on trees, plants, and the ground, and the remains of prey. There are clear explanations of difficult-to-visualize gait patterns, illustrated with both photographs (over 1,300) and illustrations (over 450). There are extensive “species accounts” which identify distinctive behaviors and notes how to differentiate similar tracks. Elbroch has other books that delve more extensively into animal habits (Behavior of North American Mammals is a reasonable companion), but Mammal Tracks & Sign makes a respectable overview in its own right.

In some ways it’s difficult to review a book this good. It would be nice if it were a bit smaller (2.8 pounds is heavy for field reference), but I wouldn’t want anything cut. And the durable, semi-gloss paper shows the photos perfectly. I wish that it weren’t so expensive, though a careful reader will pick up the equivalent of several expensive tracking seminars.

As a reference for the bookshelf, a gift for the animal-obsessed, or night-stand reading for the tracking diehard, Mammal Tracks & Sign is worth it.

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