The year 2010 marked the 100th year anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America. For the 2010 year, the Boy Scouts had the opportunity to earn four merit badges brought out of retirement. The 2010 Historical Merit Badges were carpentry, path-finding, signaling and tracking. This last merit badge held special significance for me because I conducted the in-field training for the acquisition of this merit badge for Heflin’s Boy Scouts Troop 206, and my son happened to be a participating scout.
The tracking merit badge, as it was offered in 1910, was not only a test of your skill to earn the badge, but tracking in those days was a way of life for most boys. The job of shooting wild game was often given to boys and teenagers once they had demonstrated safe and effective marksmanship skills. Many elderly men I’ve spoken with said they were given one bullet. This was primarily because ammunition required money and there wasn’t much of that going around, especially with farm families around Alabama. However, that one bullet would make any shooter take careful aim before firing, thus making the hunter more accurate and effective with bringing game to the family table.
In addition to providing food for your family, you might have used tracking skills to search for the culprit that took your chickens or ripped up your corn rows. The 15 Boys Scouts of Troop 206 were recently required to identify the tracks of 10 different animals and make a plaster cast of at least one. Each scout was able to earn his merit badge in the field that day and, with some practice, you too can become a top-notch tracker.
One of the best places to find tracks is in the snow or in muddy areas. Since we live in Alabama and snow isn’t always predictable, the next best method is to look around mud holes or low-lying wet areas on your property. One of the best places I’ve found tracks on our family farm is in freshly-plowed food plots or fresh fire breaks and access roads after a rain. In addition, look in areas where animals burrow in dens or holes in the ground or along the side of access roads in the mud.
Before the boy scouts headed out to find tracks, the Scoutmaster, Jim Edwards, reminded the boys that "a scout is reverent" and he held church service around the morning campfire to honor, as boy scouts refer to him, "The Greatest of All Scouts-God."
Study the Footstep
The old standard for examining the footprints of wildlife involves making a plaster cast of the print. I can’t help but remember the Andy Griffith episode where the expert investigator from Mount Pilot was rushed in to help solve the case of the stolen cows. The investigator asked Andy if he made a moulage (pronounced moo-lodge) of the prints. Andy said no. When Barney was asked why they didn’t make a moulage, he said, "Well, we told a few people, but decided not to make a big moulage out of it."
Basically, making a moulage for a wildlife footprint involves creating a ½-inch, circular fence around the print that will be filled with plaster of Paris. The plaster should be mixed to a consistency like pancake batter with water and quickly poured into the circular fence. For the fence, we cut ½-inch strips out of manilla folders and overlapped the strips into circles and secured them with paper clips before pressing them to the ground around the print.
After about 25 minutes, the plaster should be hardened enough to remove. Dig a small trench around the plaster fence with your finger, and remove the entire cast including dirt and place in a bucket. You can then remove the mud and dirt from the cast be washing the plaster in the creek or with a light stream of water.
Is it wild or domestic?
If you own pets like dogs and cats or free-roaming chickens, a closer inspection of the tracks is necessary to make sure you have the right animal. Dogs and coyote tracks are similar, just as large chickens make tracks similar to wild turkeys. The coyote track is slightly more tear drop shaped than the dog, and typically the middle to toes on the coyote will be closer together.
Animals like raccoons, opossums, deer, hogs and armadillos are easy to identify, especially if you have a tracking handbook or other illustrative track guide
For instance, hog tracks will have more rounded clouts and the tips of the hooves with bend around in a claw-like shape. Deer tracks will look more like tear drops.
Changing Times and Longstanding Traditions
The Boy Scouts of America have evolved with the changing times, but fortunately, they cling to the valuable traditions of the past. As the organization celebrated its 100th year, it was great to see four popular merit badges come out of retirement. Today, most people use the skill of tracking for hunting in the form of recreation. One hundred years ago, tracking was important for the family’s survival.
Scouting is one of the few organizations maintaining strict standards of integrity and trying to instill responsibility and community service in the youth. If you are interested in helping volunteer with scouting in your area, contact your local Scoutmaster. If you have land, you could offer areas for campouts and nature studies. If you have time, you can donate that and change lives.
"We always stress the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared," said Edwards. "We want them to be prepared to be leaders and productive citizens."
Scoutmaster Jim Edwards and Assistant Scoutmaster Gary Wright spent countless days each year working with Boy Scouts and they want to encourage others around the state to get involved with their local Boy Scout Troop. Be willing to get involved, and you can help ensure Scouting will one day celebrate a 200th year anniversary.
John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.