Lifestyle: Secrets of tracking wild birds revealed

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John Rhyder ventures in to the wilderness to share his bird-tracking tricks with the Observer

It might then, at first, seem tracking would be more appropriate to mammals than to birds. However, as the birds finish their annual breeding cycle, they stop singing so frequently and hide among the leaves, which are thick on the trees.

Woodcraft School Ltd inturned pigeon toe SUS-140808-152504001

Woodcraft School Ltd inturned pigeon toe SUS-140808-152504001

In late summer it can be surprisingly difficult to spot them. Many become almost as secretive as their mammalian cousins.

Like mammals, it is not always necessary to crash through nettle patches and wage war with brambles to know who is about. Although tracking birds is not nearly as exact as tracking animals, it is frequently possible to identify a bird down to species level, but with mammals this is almost always the case.

Telling a song thrush from a blackbird just from its tracks, for example, is, I would say, very difficult – if not impossible.

There are a few groups at least that are easy to spot and worth getting to know, it is a good idea first of all to have a rudimentary knowledge of the structure of a bird’s foot to understand the arrangement of toes. Birds have four toes with toe one, the hallux – in a classic-looking bird track – pointing backwards.

We then number the other toes two, three and four starting from the inside, so toe number two is closest to the other leg. In many species such as gulls and ducks, there is webbing between toes two, three and four which often shows in the tracks. Some species such as cormorants also have webbing extending between the fourth toe and the hallux.

I have included here a few bird tracks with some obvious features to get you started on a fascinating subject. Bird tracks can be a really enjoyable addition to your storehouse of natural knowledge and it is only about observation, anyone can learn these skills, no need to be suckled by a weasel in the wildwood to be good at spotting clues and learning to track.

Some shore birds and certainly game birds very rarely show the hallux in a track at all, it is higher up the leg and much shortened. This reflects a life on the ground with no need for the first toe to hold the creature securely to a branch. Large tracks showing three toes in a Sussex woodland don’t leave very many options other than pheasant.

Around muddy puddles in woods it is also possible to spot the tracks of wood pigeons. They show classic four-toed tracks but with the forward facing toes curving in towards the trail, hence the expression pigeon-toed. They also frequently show a large space in the centre of the track.

Crows are also very typical, once again they show classic perching bird tracks but one toe always lays closer to toe number three than the other. If you work out which one, you can also tell right from left.

Some birds unusually have two toes facing backwards and two facing forwards. The two best-known, although very unrelated, are owls and woodpeckers.

Each of these form a classic ‘K’-shaped track.

Tracking for me is about building a better understanding of all the creatures that share our spaces. It is immensely satisfying to walk into the countryside and know who passed before.

Who knows, perhaps next time I should introduce you to the wonderful world of insect tracking!

John has also been filming for Woodlands TV.