Tay Meadow Tidbit – mammal scat

Scat with grasshopper bits

We all know the reasons to stay on the trail: mostly to protect the vegetation and other things from the disturbance and damage of many feet walking over them. Perhaps also to avoid getting lost, or because trails generally have safer footing. In public places such as parks or conservation areas, this totally makes sense. But on private property, you can probably get away with hiking around off-trail, cutting through the bush, across an open field, along the edge of a pond or creek. Since it’s just your feet (or a small number of people, anyway, compared to public spaces), and you’re in a known area, there is less likelihood of any of the reasons to stay on the trail happening.

And there is one really good reason for the naturalist to stray off-trail: you’ll see more. On trail you’re limited to perhaps a few yards in either direction in terms of what you can reasonably observe. Anything further out than that you’re likely to walk right by without ever knowing it was there. On the trail you end up taking the same path time and again, and everything becomes familiar. You don’t have to watch where you’re placing your feet (or not as much) so you don’t spend as much time looking at the ground. Off-trail everything is new and you have to keep an eye on your surroundings. There’s the potential to encounter anything.

This afternoon I decided to cut across one of the fields in a transect that still took me roughly from point A to point B but through the grasses off-trail. I happened to cross a mossy bit of exposed rock. In this middle of the rock was this old piece of poop. Most animals don’t poop on trails, so you’re unlikely to encounter scat unless you happen to be venturing about off-trail.

My best guess on this is that it’s fox scat, but it’s started to decompose a little and it’s hard to discern shape now, one of the most useful clues for narrowing down the poopetrator. The candidates here for a tubular scat would most likely be fox, raccoon or skunk. I found a Google Book excerpt from A field guide to mammal tracking in western America by James C. Halfpenny, Elizabeth Biesiot, which provided some information on “scatology”. Canines, including foxes, usually have a blunt end and a tapered end to their scat. Raccoons tend to be blunt on both ends, and skunks tapered at both ends. It kind of looks like the end to the right might have been tapered, but hard to say.

Scat with grasshopper bits

Another clue to the animal is often the contents of the scat, if you can pick out some of the bits of the animal’s diet. One of the things that made this bit of scat noteworthy to me was all the bits of grasshopper visible in it, and specifically the thick “thighs” of the insects. In addition to the condition of the scat, the abundance of grasshopper material would suggest to me that the pile was probably from October or possibly early November, when the meadow was thick with the bugs and they’d make a really easy meal.

The mammal tracking book result suggested that dog scat often has large items such as bits of exoskeleton from insects in the scat, specifically mentioning grasshopper legs as a common item. That doesn’t necessarily rule out raccoons, however, as the latter are omnivorous and exoskeletons would probably pass through the digestive system of most predators. Skunks will also eat insects regularly. Really, with the incredible abundance of grasshoppers that were about in our meadow in the fall, I can’t see any opportunistic animal passing them up.

A final clue can sometimes be the number of scat piles in an area. Some mammals will return to the same area (called a latrine) repeatedly to poop. Raccoons and skunks are among these. There was just the one scat that I noticed, which may therefore also favour fox as the primary candidate, but doesn’t rule the others out – when you gotta go, you gotta go.

Raven might also have been a possibility, but I don’t think grasshoppers would have figured so heavily in her scat, even if she was catching a few.

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11 responses to “Tay Meadow Tidbit – mammal scat

  1. There is much to be discovered from scats and pellets! The source of the poo looks as though it must have been dining like a king.

    • I love that the study of poop is so useful/common it actually has its own name.

      I’m pretty sure that if I could live off grasshoppers I would’ve been set for months for all the insects I could’ve collected out of those fields!

  2. Oooo – what a great scat find! I’ve never seen one with grasshopper bits in it. Although one year we had a couple owl pellets (from out west) that had the mandibles of Jeruselm Crickets in them – scarey bits.

    Another good tracking book (with pics and descriptions of scats, browse, dens, et al) is Mark Elbroch’s “Mammal Tracks and Sign.” It’s a weighty tome, due in part to all the color photos. He also has a companion tome: “Bird Tracks and Sign.”

    • Owl pellets are neat to poke about in too, Ellen. It’s interesting to see what something’s been eating and learn more about the animal’s diet and behaviour. Thanks for the tips on the books, I’ll have to check them out.

  3. Funny the lengths we’ll go to to identify a pile of poop!! Well done, and very interesting. I enjoy using Tracking and the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes, not a book for the trail, but nice for reference.

  4. Whenever I see hard, chunky poop like this, I find a little stick and turn it over, then break it apart and look inside. I’ve found lots and lots of dung beetles (Onthophagus, Melanocanthon, Geotrupes, Anteuchus, etc.) in and under the poop.

    Oh, and I always have a pair of forceps handy :)

    • I should’ve, Ted! I did poke at it a little, using a stalk of grass, but out in the middle of the meadow there weren’t any sticks handy. I wanted to try to check out that round black thing, which looked sort of like an eye (never did decide what it was). Might be a little cold for dung beetles now, not sure when they’d disappear for the year up here.

  5. No scat on trails? Maybe it’s just a Texas thing, but Santa Ana NWR had quite an abundance of fresh scat on trails every morning – and most other places in TX that I’ve been have had middle-of-trail scat…

    • Do you know who the scat belongs to, Heidi? Perhaps it has something to do with the faunal selection in your region? I do, from time to time and when I’m in places where they occur, see bear scat along trails, but virtually never anything else. You’ve got a bunch of species we don’t, such as ringtails and armadillos, peccaries, other stuff, and I wonder if one of your critters has a propensity for marking paths?

      • This is true – most of what I see on trails is coyote, though the wind farm had a brilliant variety of poop: cotton rat, cottontail, jack rabbit, skunk, raccoon, opossum, fox, coyote, bobcat, badger and cougar. Not that I had any idea which critter left it, half the time. They were all massively outnumbered by cow pies!

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