A fresh blanket of new fallen snow recently provided Tim Puopulo a blank canvas to find what he was looking for. The park ranger was tracking animals through the middle of a park in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a hobby that is gaining popularity as Americans continue to search for ways to cope with the pandemic.
"Right here is a good animal track. This is a raccoon. You can see there's five toes on the front and five on the back," Ranger Puopulo said as he came across a path of footprints in the snow.
From racoon prints to a hole dug in the snow where a squirrel kept a walnut for safe keeping, everything in the wild tells a story of survival, including rabbit tracks Puopulo spotted that disappeared beneath a piece of elevated boardwalk, something he says provides a perfect place for shelter.
"By looking at these tracks, you can get a glimpse into what was going through this rabbit's mind. For a rabbit, you’re on the dinner menu for a lot of animal," he explained.
For families struggling through a pandemic winter, an activity like animal tracking can be a perfect outlet to get kids outside. It doesn't matter where you live in the country or even the season. In the middle of a recent walk with Puopulo in the middle of the city, he spotted a great horned owl who typically hangs out in this area year-round.
Puopulo says it's all about learning where to look.
"Once you find the track, this is where the fun begins. You get to think bigger scope. Where is it going? What is it doing?” he said. "It’s impossible for any animal to go an entire day without leaving something behind for us to find."
And perhaps now more than any other time, it’s important to have an escape of any kind to help manage some of the pressure of the pandemic.
Licensed clinical social worker Dametres Perkins sees all kinds of value in an activity like animal tracking.
"We’re getting fresh air, we’re getting sunlight, we’re getting vitamin D, so we’re getting all that stuff, but we’re also moving our body which is huge. People are not moving right now," she explained.
The simple concept of carrying out a plan or a achieving a goal, like finding that great horned owl in the woods can do a lot more for parents and children's mental health than most people may realize.
"Activities that give you a sense of control can make you feel much more regulated."