Though wild animals are elusive, their calling cards leave behind valuable information.
By John Meyer
Wild animals stay alive because they’re good at being cautious and remaining well hidden. Often, only subtle signs are left behind to indicate their presence. Environmental conditions can make obvious marks, such as tracks, difficult to distinguish. Another available clue, though, has its own set of unique identifiers.
Animal feces, or scat, offers a wealth of information about our elusive animal neighbors. Who’s been around, how long ago and what they’ve been eating are three of the many questions scat can answer. With a little practice, significant information can be gleaned that will help anyone in pursuit of a stealthy animal.
Mike Pittman, a Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist, uses a variety of animal signs to help him study and manage the desert bighorn sheep population at Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Brewster County. “We find it [scat] particularly useful for dietary studies,” says Pittman — that is, the diet of the sheep as well as that of their predators. He adds that scat is a big help in detecting animal presence where dry, rocky ground renders tracks unreadable or altogether absent. When you are putting together and analyzing clues, you’ll need to utilize what you already know about the habits and basic physical characteristics of animals. If a specimen looks like that of a cat, but you’re not sure, consider the color and size. Is it 8 inches long? Then it’s likely from a larger cat or dog-like animal — probably not a bobcat but more likely a cougar or maybe a coyote. You must be careful to keep an open mind, though, because most wild animals have a varied diet and the scat specimen may contain seeds, fur, bones or all three.
Color and visible contents will reveal clues about diet. The scat of a carnivore will contain fur. Most diets will contain some sort of plant matter and therefore droppings will contain seeds. A meal such as prickly pear may have a bright color as well. A meal of primarily meat is usually black and tarry in appearance. In the case of a coyote, inconsistency may be your best clue. If you are seeing different samples that are the same size (think of a bird dog for comparison) but with different contents, such as prickly pear seeds one time then dark with fur another time, this could easily be explained by the coyote’s opportunistic diet.
Once you get a feel for what type of animal it is, consider how long ago it was at the site. Moisture content is key evidence. Using a stick or gloved hand, compress the specimen. A fresh scat will behave more like clay or mud and mold into a different shape. An older dropping will crumble and fall apart or turn chalky. This may also be helpful for viewing any seeds or bones present if they aren’t visible on the outside.
Experience will polish your skills after these fundamental rules are followed. A checklist will flow readily from your mind. Pellets? Round? = Rabbit. Slightly elongated? = Sheep. Tubular, like Fido’s? Same size? Likely coyote. Larger but dark and tarry? Could be cougar.
If you are stumped but still want to know if that’s a calling card from some wild hogs, put some in a plastic bag and take it to your nearest TPWD wildlife biologist for help with identification.
The topic may not be for the dinner table, but for a landowner who’s been trying to coax deer onto his land, a deposit of deer “berries” can be a welcome site. Likewise, someone who has been dreading the encroachment of crop-damaging hogs may finally have conclusive evidence.
Lastly, when you’re done with your detective work, don’t forget to wash your hands with soap and water. Animal scat is just like that of humans — chock full of bacteria that can make you sick and spoil freshly harvested game.