Legitimate Valuable Information…
When a metropolitan Detroit newspaper reviewed the book Encyclopedia of Tracks & Scats, the reviewer joked that it might be better titled “Prints & Poop.” He was understandably amused that a large college-level textbook would focus so much attention on analyzing what came out of the hind end of an animal.
In fact, feces, or scats, have legitimate value to hunters and trackers who want to “get the poop” on wild animals in their area of interest. Analyzing what came out of an animal can reveal a good deal about what went into its mouth, and that in turn can narrow down, even pinpoint the places it frequents.
Scat is whatever wasn’t absorbed by an animal’s digestive tract, and undigested matter – or lack of it – can tell a lot about its depositor. Cougar and wolf scats are nearly identical in shape and size, encased in a spiral sheath of fur that scours intestines while protecting them from sharp objects. Breaking either apart usually reveals small bones, because both species swallow mouse-size prey whole, but if the interior of the scat contains chunks of a deer’s leg bone, the predator had powerful jaws built for crushing, which rules out a cougar.
Black bears lack the stealth or speed to be good pursuit hunters, but one that comes into possession of a hunter- or road-killed deer will make scats that look very much like a wolf’s, and a bear too can crush bones to obtain fat-rich marrow. But it’s unlikely that a bear will be eating deer in winter, and a deer carcass consumed by a bear will probably be within a secluded brush thicket, while wolves prefer to feed in open, preferably elevated locations. Wolves, coyotes, and cougars will use their sharp carnassial teeth to cut up an adult deer and remove it piecemeal to a safe feeding station, while bears have the power to drag the whole carcass, and tend to leave all uneaten remains in a single place. Making positive identification of a scat often requires at least a rudimentary knowledge of how different species behave, as well as confirmation by tracks, territorial markings on the surrounding terrain, and other clues, known collectively as “sign.”
Scats may appear to be haphazardly placed, but there’s a purpose to every deposit. With so much of every species’ communications dependent on scent, scat placement plays a vital role in marking or laying claim to a place. Within a single scat are olfactory markers that convey an animal’s personal identity, its gender, age, physical size, state of health, and even its disposition.
Predator scats are left strategically at trail intersections as boundary markers to discourage competitors. Trackers who find predator scat on an established trail can expect to find an intersecting trail that crosses there. Boundary scats most often belong to males; females are naturally less ostentatious, and tend to be less territorial unless rearing young. Scat posts serve to warn potential competitors that a territory is claimed, both visually and with an olfactory biography of the maker’s ability to retain control of its domain.
This olfactory calling card also helps to make mating males stand out during their rut. Bull elk employ scats as part of the bath of mud, urine, and scat that contending males cover themselves with to maximize chances of being noticed. For whitetails and hares, whose scats are left at random along a web of trails that become more numerous closer to feeding areas; the advantage in this instinctive strategy is that their odors are everywhere. If even a pack of wolves chases a whitetail into its bedding area, where visibility may be measured in feet because of dense undergrowth, and a single bound can put the deer out of sight, there is a nine-in-ten chance that the deer will escape. Once a pursuing predator loses sight of its prey for even a second in that jungle, it will probably not be able to reacquire it by scent in that maze of smells.
Interpreting Diet from Scats
Some of almost everything that goes into a creature comes out in a form that can be identified. Soft, black raccoon scat with a sprinkling of small whitish seeds say that the animal has been feeding in a berry patch nearby. In blueberry country (July-September), expect that scats from even carnivores will be distinctly purple, often with undigested berries throughout. Cow pie-like moose and elk scats say that the animals have been eating their fill of rich vegetation, especially apples, which upset their digestive tracts and narrows the places a tracker would look to find those animals during feeding hours. Porcupine scat pellets strung together like beads reveal that this nocturnal feeder has been grazing in green, grassy places. Cat or canine scats wrapped in a spiral of fine fur, with very small bones inside, tell of a diet of rodents, while large, soft black scats with chokecherry pits indicate a bear that has been feasting on these calorie-rich fruits.
Interpreting Health from Scats
Scats are an indicator of health. A bear whose scat is dry and fibrous in autumn, maybe with a mucous coating, is likely ill, probably not fat enough to survive the coming winter, and likely an old, arthritic individual that could be dangerous – like the Alaskan grizzly that did not regard amateur naturalist Timothy Treadwell as its brother.. Predator scats, especially, may contain whitish parasitic worms, or segments of larger worms, which tell that this individual’s health is compromised.
While loose, watery scats don’t necessarily indicate illness greater than an upset stomach, healthy scats are always formed and firm. Shape is always roughly cylindrical, reflecting the shape and diameter of the sphincter muscles that produce it. An abundance of grasses, nature’s own dietary fiber, in carnivore scats reveals a need to scrub undigested material from the animal’s lower digestive tract, and are especially prevalent with older individuals.
Never handle scats with bare hands. Infectious organisms are common in feces, including tapeworms and organisms dangerous to humans. When breaking apart a sample to examine its contents, wear disposable plastic or nitrile gloves, and use a stick to open the deposit.
Food color largely determines scat color. Purple scats are common in blueberry country, but fresh carnivore scat that is black and smells like rotted flesh denotes a meal of pure meat from large prey. Crushed bones show as chunks of white, or sometimes as a whitish area of coarsely powdered bone, indicating a gnawing animal, like a fox or coyote. Spherical rabbit or hare pellets that are green tell that their maker was frightened off before it could re-ingest them for final digestion (a process known as fecal fermentation); completely digested scat pellets are dark brown.
Whatever color a scat is, it will lighten in color with exposure to air and time. Fast-decaying organics, like meat and skin, are the first to decompose, becoming more pale as time passes, until those materials turn ash-white and crumble. Tougher hairs, grass and plant fibers remain intact for up to several months, but also pale with age.
How quickly a scat fades depends on environmental influences: In hot weather, the process can take only two days; colder weather can slow decay for up to several weeks, and scats left atop snow may remain fresh-looking until spring thaw.