Reading Animal Scat

August 22, 2012

A walk in the woods rewards us with glimpses of forest animals—a scampering chipmunk, a prowling toad, a trailside salamander. But sightings of lesser-known creatures are, by definition, rare. Many woodland animals are not active during the daylight, and most are shy about contact with humans. Typical hikers move with enough stomp and clomp to warn every listening thing of their approach. If we do spot an animal through the trees, it is likely to be moving quickly—away.

DID YOU KNOW?
Do not handle scat with your bare hands. Animal waste can transfer disease via contact or inhalation. Look. Use a stick. Take a photo.

Often, the presence of wild creatures is revealed to us only in the signs they leave behind. Tracks, nests, food scraps, and shed feathers or antlers are all clues to the ways and means of forest animals. And so is their scat.

Poop, feces, droppings, dung—scat by any other name will smell as sweet. OK, not quite sweet, but you may be surprised that scat of the non-domesticated kind does not often present olfactory offense. If you can get past a basic level of squeamishness, a study of these animal signs will reveal much about life in the woods.

We can analyze animal diets and habits by examining their scat. Wild woodland creatures eat local and eat (mostly) fresh, although some may contrive to mix human food into their menu.

Herbivores
Rabbits and hares produce similar round, pea-sized droppings. Their habitats do not usually overlap, with snowshoe hare scat often found at high elevations, even above treeline, where they munch on alpine vegetation.

Round deer and moose droppings are alike in composition and tend to be deposited in quantity. Piles of cherry-sized pellets are easy to identify in moose country. Both animals feed on tree bark and buds in winter, which makes for firm, woody scat. Leafier summer food produces looser droppings.

Beavers, too, are strict vegetarians and their scat reflects their bark-heavy diet. But it can be hard to find—the fibrous clumps are deposited in water and quickly break down.

Many people don’t realize that porcupines are also treeeaters, living largely on conifer twigs and bark. Their scat is formed into elongated woody pellets, which can accumulate in deep, turpentine-scented piles outside their dens.

Carnivores
North Woods hikers may notice small squiggles of dark scat on rocks in the trail—a sign that a weasel or marten has left its mark. These stealthy predators are rarely seen, but their featheror fur-flecked droppings attest to their carnivorous lifestyle.

Piscatorial otter scat, full of fish bones, scales, and bits of crustaceans, is left in prominent spots along waterways.

Omnivores
An omnivorous diet results in variable scat. Coyotes and red foxes exercise perhaps the widest menu options—their tubular, segmented scat may contain bones, feathers, and fur in winter, with seeds, nuts, berries, grass, leaves, insects, fruit, and eggs appearing in summer deposits. The coyote’s droppings are generally larger.

Bears are also expansive in their tastes. They gorge on seasonal foods, like fruits and nuts, and leave large piles of uniform scat du jour. Near human habitation, birdseed and bits of trash will be found in their droppings.

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Allison W. Bell

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.