This is fair warning, the article that you are about to read is a primer on poop, a discussion of droppings, and an explanation of excrement. There is no penalty if you choose to stop reading here.
I am not channeling my inner adolescent, nor am I following my nose. Instead, I am doing a bit of wildlife sleuthing. Wildlife sightings are not guaranteed on any nature outing, and there are very few folks that can produce wildlife ondemand. The wild residents of the woods, fields, waters and sky can be elusive.
But they always leave something behind.
Animal tracking is the art of seeing clues that animals leave behind. In your trail wanderings, you can find animal homes (nests, tunnels, dens and galls), animal leftovers (eaten twigs, munched pine cones, or devoured seeds and berries), feathers, fur, eggs and other evidence of wildlife. Perhaps, though, the most fascinating facet of animal tracking is scatology, which is the study of animal droppings.
This is the scoop on poop.
The presence and characteristics of scat give clues to the animal’s health and diet. Scatologists know to look at size, shape and contents. They also know that it is better to look than to touch, as scat can carry disease.
Size matters — bigger animals tend to create bigger scat. This would seem an obvious statement, but it is not a perfect correlation. A small dog can produce larger scat than a Canada goose of equal size (though not as often). Owls can leave pellets (which are not actually excrement, but rather regurgitations) that dwarf the droppings of a much larger dee r (though not as many). So the science can be a bit scat-illogical?
The shape of the droppings is tell-tale too. Round is for rabbit, while cows go plop. Raccoon, skunk, dog and geese leave tubular droppings, and ungulates leave oval offal. Those in the feline family have tear-drop or tapered tidbits, while the waste of rodents — like mice — resemble rice.
Color is not always an indicator, as the shade may depend on what an animal has eaten. There are some exceptions. The green of goose droppings is a deep hue that is not often replicated by other animals. Otter scat is usually gray (and comprised mainly of fish scales), and white droppings are most likely of bird or reptilian origin. As a generalization, darker scat comes from carnivores and lighter is linked to herbivores.
Even scent can help you size up the suspect. Dogs are way ahead of humans in this respect. One veterinarian has written that, to a dog, droppings are “like reading a newspaper, only better” – it tells them a great deal about the animal that left it, such as what sex it is (if it’s dog droppings), what it’s eaten, its state of health, and perhaps many other things we can only guess at. I’m sure that there are some folks who will tell you that they appreciate the smell of horse or cow manure — that it really connects them to the feeling of being in the countryside. Those are true aficionados.
Or not, if you consider that some animals practice coprophagy, or the consumption of their own and/or others’ droppings. Dung beetles are the most notorious practitioner, although some mammals double dip when they excrete soft pellets and eat them to extract nutrients. I guess that this is a true example of “waste not, want not.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.