Baseline behavior

10/15/2015

Baseline is one of the most important concepts in tracking and nature awareness. Every animal has its baseline behavior and its baseline gait. But in practice, baseline is elusive and hard to define, and that is exactly why it is such a fascinating and useful idea. It is similar to the idea of maximum efficiency and a sense of normality, yet it is deeper and more critical to tracking than either of those concepts. 

The problem with baseline is that there is no such thing! It is a constantly changing state, changing in response to weather, season, time of day, history, animal and plant cycles and rhythms. But for any one individual, and species, at any one moment, there is a baseline. 

At all times in nature, there is a “baseline symphony:” the natural sounds and movements of animal life, particularly bird call and song, that can be charted throughout the day for any particular area. Morning and evening are usually the busiest and loudest times, and midnight and mid-day are usually the quietest. But this will vary depending on weather and season. Here in Point Reyes, the fog and wind have strong effects on animal patterns and the resulting baseline. Knowing what is normal for any moment gives us a way to read disruptions, such as a hunting predator. 

In the case of a bobcat on the prowl, for instance, birds will often raise a loud alarm and will gather to “mob” the cat, perching nearby, looking down at the hunter and calling loudly. But in the case of a Cooper’s hawk on the hunt, birds will suddenly go silent and hunker down under cover. This absence of calls, the “tunnel of silence,” is a major disruption of “baseline.” 

Another form of baseline is the way each species of mammal normally moves. This can be readily seen in the track patterns. Each animal has its preferred and most common gait. This baseline gait comes from the morphology of the animal and how it fits into its habitat. Each animal has a different niche in its habitat, a different “job,” and its gait reflects the most efficient bio-mechanical way to move for its purpose in its usual terrain. 

Baseline gait for a coyote is a trot, but for a bobcat it is a walk. Baseline for a vole is a trot, but for a mouse it is a bound. Baseline for a skunk is a lope, for a horse it is a gallop. Of course each animal can and does move in a variety of other ways, but the baseline is most common under most conditions. This is one of the great keys to tracking and understanding what animals have been doing. Any time an animal moves out of baseline, something has influenced it, and looking for what that influence was is a path that will lead us deeply into nature. 

But even that baseline has infinite variations, which can be read. Those variations are truly what bring an animal to life in its tracks, and I think this is what we love the most about tracking. For instance, as a coyote trots down a beach on its nightly patrol, it will be constantly shifting and shuddering in response to the world around it: the scents on the wind, the sounds and vibrations nearby and distant and the movements of birds. All of these things will influence its gait as it slows down, speeds up, makes quick turns or subtle weight shifts, and all of these things can be read in its tracks and compared against baseline patterns. 

With these things in mind, I recently followed the wildest coyote trails I’ve ever seen. This coyote had come out of a thicket and through a “pinch-point” between a steep slope and the edge of a pond. It then ran across open sand toward a basin at the edge of concentrated rodent habitat. 

In its trail were every possible gait and gait change, rapid shifts from gallop to walk, double and triple pressure releases, and a stretch that had a wild pattern of two or three left-side lopes jumping over to two or three right-side lopes, back and forth, with slapping feet spraying sand to the sides, when it finally dashed off in a gallop, only to suddenly pivot and trot back to inspect a bobcat scat. 

I think the only quality of coyote baseline here was the constant change of gaits that coyotes are known for. If a trot would be considered the most baseline movement for a coyote, then most of the trail I followed was out of baseline, yet still characteristic of coyote. It is fun to conjecture what was going on here, but it was truly a “dancing coyote.” 

I usually associate that kind of dancing with courtship, but I haven’t seen any pairing up with this individual. So could it be part of claiming a new territory? I didn’t see much in the way of marking behavior. No scratch-scenting. But the way it was carefully checking out other scats was suggestive... 

 

Richard Vacha lives in Point Reyes Station, where he makes a living as a craftsman and has studied tracking for 30 years. For information about the Marin Tracking Club and the Point Reyes Tracking School programs, email rwvacha@horizoncable.com.