Scat-tergories: The Scoop on Poop

A closer look at what's on the ground provides clues to animal whereabouts

|  Story by Meghan McMahon  |

Many of us have had the experience of walking along a path or trail and looking down to find we’ve only narrowly avoided stepping in a pile of animal feces, otherwise known as “scat.” And while most of us can easily identify a pile of dog poop, feces from birds and mammals that call our area home is often less easy to recognize.

But the droppings these animals leave behind can tell us a lot about them. 

“Scat really can be a clue about these animals,” said Kelli Parke, an interpretive naturalist at the Forest Preserve District’s Four Rivers Environmental Education Center.

The more common types of scat found in the Will County forest preserves come from animals we see most often, including deer, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, coyotes and various types of birds, Parke said.

Right off the bat, the mere presence of animal scat tells us an animal lives in the area, and the abundance of scat indicates the area is home to a high population of the animal. Where you find animal scat can also be a clue to its behavior, Parke said. You may find raccoon scat, for example, in clumps at the bottom of a tree, which tells us the animal was spending time in the tree.

Scientists can also examine the chemical composition of scat to learn about an animal’s health.  

“You can find out if an animal is sick, or if an animal is pregnant,” Parke said.

Different classifications of animals typically produce different types of scat. Mammal scat is usually spherical or tubular in shape, although the shape and consistency varies greatly among species.

Birds, on the other hand, typically produce fluid feces, and it is often whitish in color.

Gulls have left their mark at Whalon Lake in Naperville. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Bird excrement is often easily identifiable both because of where we typically find it — on surfaces, on the ground, under trees and on our cars — and because of its whitish color. According to the National Audubon Society, the white color occurs because birds do not produce urine and instead rid their bodies of nitrogenous waste in the form of uric acid. This acid is a white paste that doesn’t easily dissolve in water, which is why bird poop tends to stay on your car’s windshield even after driving through a rainstorm or a car wash.

Although it’s easy to spot bird feces, it can be difficult to distinguish the type of bird it came from. Some birds, though, leave behind recognizable waste material. Notably, Canada goose poop can range from green to whitish in color, Parke said. It’s often found in abundance in areas where they eat.

Scat from owls and other large birds leaves a large white splatter, or splay, Parke said.

“It looks like someone put paint in the middle of the forest,” she said of owl scat.

Herons, too, leave large splays from their feces, and they are often found near water, since that is where these birds live.

Parke said dissecting an animal’s scat often leads to visual clues about their diets. Coyote scat, for example, can contain hair and small bone fragments from the smaller animals they consume.

“Anything they can’t digest or get minerals from, they are going to pass in their scat,” she said.

And although Parke said investigating animal scat can be fascinating, she recommends taking precautions before doing so, such as using a stick or wearing gloves. And it’s never advisable to come in contact with raccoon scat.

“Raccoons are one of the No. 1 carriers of disease from animals to humans,” she said.

Here’s a closer look at some of the scat and feces you may find while exploring in Will County.

Coyotes

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Coyote feces is similar in appearance to dog poop, with a tubular shape that is tapered at the ends. Oftentimes, it contains visible hair and fur, small bones or vegetable matter, according to the University of Illinois Extension

Coyote scat can often be found along or on paths and trails in the preserves because they use them to mark their territory as they travel around an area, Parke said.

“They use trails as their boundary markers,” she explained.

Rabbits

(Photo via Flickr)

The rabbits we see throughout Will County and northern Illinois are eastern cottontail rabbits, and their droppings appear as a small pile of dark-colored spherical pellets, the University of Illinois Extension reports.

Rabbits are coprophagous, which means they eat their own feces. Rabbits eat quickly, with a diet consisting mainly of grasses and other plants during the warmer months and woody vegetation such as twigs and bark during the winter. After eating, they move to a protected or sheltered area and excrete soft pellets which they then ingest, allowing the rabbit to digest the food while protecting itself from its predators, the Extension states. This process lets additional nutrition to be extracted from the food by giving it a second go through the gut.

Deer

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

The white-tailed deer is the state mammal of Illinois and is found throughout the state. Deer droppings are easy to visually identify. They are similar in appearance to that from a rabbit, but deer usually leave larger piles. According to the University of Illinois Extension, deer scat can be described as piles of dark, cylindrical pellets between a half-inch and an inch long. 

Beavers

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Beaver scat is not seen as often because beavers typically defecate in the water, the University of Illinois Extension reports.

Parke said when you do see beaver scat it is usually near the water where the animals live, and it is predominantly wood material. The feces tends to disintegrate quickly in water because it is mostly wood pulp.

Horses

(Photo by Chad Merda)

Horses are not native to Will County, but you do sometimes find piles of horse poop on the trails in the preserves that are used by area riders. The average horse can produce up to 50 pounds of feces each day, and they typically pass manure between six and 10 times a day, according to Horse & Rider magazine, so the piles tend to be larger than you see with other animals common in our area.

Horse poop is typically a shade of green or brown, and the color will vary based on the horse’s diet. An animal that eats a lot of alfalfa, for example, will produce poop that’s a brighter shade of green compared with a horse that eats hay, which produces greenish-brown-hued feces, according to Horse & Rider.

While dog owners are encouraged to pick up after their animals, the District's General Use Ordinance does not mandate that equestrians pick up after their horses. It would be impractical in some instances for equestrians to perform this task. Also, horse dung deteriorates more quickly than dog feces because horses are vegetarians.  

Bats

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Several species of bats live in Illinois, the most common being the big brown bat and the little brown bat. 

Bat feces is referred to as guano, and finding guano is a good sign the bats are present at a particular location. Although it is dark in color, bat guano is similar in shape and size as grains of rice, Parke said.

Geese

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Canada geese can be seen year-round throughout Will County, preferring to spend time in areas with short, tender grass that are close to water.

These geese leave behind small, tubular scat. The color can vary, although it is usually various shades of green and containing some white.

Cormorants

(Photo by Chad Merda)

Like most birds in our area, double-crested cormorants produce white fecal matter that is mainly liquid. It can often be found in large quantities in and under the trees where they nest, according to the National Audubon Society.

Cormorants “leave more of a wash, kind of like white paint that is highly acidic and can kill the trees it lands on,” Parke said.

Gulls

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

The ring-billed gull is common in northern Illinois, and most of us know it as a seagull. These birds are frequently seen circling over parking lots, stadiums and landfills — anyplace they may be able to scavenge for food, the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology reports.

Gull droppings are similar to that from other birds, whitish in appearance and liquid in form, and can be found all over the areas where they nest and look for food.

Turkey vultures

(Photo courtesy of Bonnie Wydra)

Turkey vultures feed primarily on carrion, or dead animals, according to the National Audubon Society. They are one of the few birds that have a good sense of smell, which they use to find their food.

Like droppings from other birds, the feces from turkey vultures is often a white-colored liquid. They typically expel it after stepping on an animal carcass because the digestive juices found in the vulture’s feces will kill any bacteria present, according to the Turkey Vulture Society. These antiseptic-like juices also help explain why vultures don’t get sick from eating rotten meat.

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Lead image by Glenn P. Knoblock

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