Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Adirondack Scat: The Scoop on Poop

It’s a glorious day. You decide to go for a walk. You step out the door and head for the hills. You are ready to take in everything Ol’ Mom Nature has to offer, so you’ve equipped yourself with binoculars, field guides, and a hand lens. You have your heart set on finding flowers, spying birds, or maybe, just maybe, stumbling upon that elusive moose. Anything could happen . . . the sky is the limit. Odds are, however, that you aren’t prepared to peek at poop.

I suspect that we all snigger at the mention of poo because we were raised to think of it as something “dirty.” And, well, I suppose it is, technically, so this is why those of us who study natural science refer to the offending matter as scat, or droppings—words that are less likely to elicit tittering. Still, when I work with kids, I do use the vernacular “poo” or “poop” because it helps move the stuff little further from its tarnished image—when words become familiar they become less taboo.

Animal droppings are nothing to be ashamed of. As the song goes: birds do, bees do it, even educated fleas do it.” Okay, so the “it” mentioned in this song isn’t the same “it,” but like our “it” it has acquired the same backroom bawdiness. So, let’s quote another song: “all God’s chillen got to doodly-do.” It’s a fact of life, folks, and it can be, if you are willing to let it be, rather fascinating.

Yes, I’m one of those folks who find feces to be fabulously fantastic. Ask any kid who’s gone out tracking with me and he’ll confirm that I get excited when I find a pile of poo. This is because a) we don’t find it very often on our trails, and b) animal droppings can tell us an awful lot about who’s sharing our woods.

Just like bird songs, foot prints, and flower shapes, scats can be fairly easy to identify. As with many types of ID, determining family is usually the easiest, and species can be a little more of a challenge, but with practice and some background information, it isn’t too difficult to do.

One of the things I do when I teach basic scat ID is compare the poops to familiar foods. This makes remembering them a snap. For example, you are walking along and you see a pile of Coco Puffs under the drooping branches of a balsam fir. You are looking at either snowshoe hare or cottontail rabbit droppings (unless you are walking with a kid who took a tracking class with me, in which case they might just be Coco Puffs; the clue will be if he eats one to ID it). Hare droppings are going to be a bit larger. Now, if you were here in Newcomb, I’d guarantee you’d be staring at hare poops, because we don’t have rabbits. On the other hand, if you were down in, oh, say Saugerties, I’d say it’d be rabbit poo – I don’t think they have hares that far south.

Maybe the pile looks more like chocolate-covered raisins, each little turd more oval than round. Why, those, dear reader, are deer poops. They look a lot like the nannyberries goats leave behind. Of course, if you are standing in a goat pen, the odds are they are indeed nannyberries.

The other afternoon as I was pulling out of the driveway I saw what looked like breakfast sausages lying on the pavement. Even at a distance of fifteen feet I knew they were raccoon droppings. They had that rough, knobbly texture brown-n-serve type sausages have, were about three or four inches long, and had flat ends. Pretty distinctive. Plus, we’ve had a series of very mild days and nights and the raccoons have been on the move – another good clue.

Let’s say you’re walking along and you see a log with a pile of poo on top. It looks like what you’d get if you grabbed a tube of toothpaste and squeezed. A rope of paste spools out of the tube and kind of folds back and forth on itself as it piles up on the counter. This is what weasel poop often looks like. Small weasels will have small poops, while larger weasels will have larger poops. If you are near the water when you find it, you may have found some mink scat. Very cool. Of course, this doesn’t apply to otters, who, although in the weasel family, have very loose poops that are more like splats. For otter scats, look for fish scales. Better yet, take a sniff – I guarantee you they smell fishy.

Cat scats, well, these are pretty easy: they look like Tootsie Rolls. I’m talking the big tootsie rolls, the kind that have perforations every inch or so so you can break them apart to share with your friends. This is because when a cat “goes” it does a sort of poop and squeeze, poop and squeeze. Every time it “squeezes” the poop is constricted, just like the perforations on that Tootsie Roll.

Then we have the canines. In the winter our wild canids (foxes, coyotes) are eating a diet high in other animals, and as a result their poo is loaded with hair (and bones, if you are lucky). The ends will be tapered, sometimes with the last bit forming a little curlicue. In the fall, these scats can be filled with seeds and such, since canines, especially foxes, are omnivorous and come autumn will fill up on berries and apples and whatever other edibles they can find. Still, the overall shape of the scats will be the same.

Years ago I met an exterminator who had a wonderful scat story. He serviced the homes of many very wealthy, high society types. One of his clients had a mystery animal leaving scats about the house. The exterminator went through and collected the offending matter and had to try to identify it before he could treat the house. Upon examination, he found that the scats consisted of very fine material. Scats made of “fine material” are made by animals eating processed foods. He knew the family had a toddler. It turned out that Junior was reaching into his diapers and flinging his poo about the house. As you can imagine, the Missus refused to believe that her child would do such a thing.

Now that the snows are melting, it is becoming more difficult to find animal signs in the woods and fields around us. Many signs blend right in with their surroundings, as they should. But being aware of scats, what they look like and where to find them, will help you keep in touch with your wild neighbors. Remember, though, to look and not touch, because some scats can carry parasites which you’d do best to avoid.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.



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