This past week I found myself feeling restless. It had been much too windy lately to work outdoors, so I spent my time keeping busy inside the house. Baking and cooking seemed appealing. I found, however, that while I worked away in the kitchen, I would, invariably, catch myself gazing out the large picture window above the kitchen sink, longingly wishing I was “out there” instead of inside the house.
When the weekend arrived Saturday morning, I was glad to see the wind was not blowing as hard as it had been. I decided to head out with my camera and see what was going on in the woodlands. Taking my usual path through the neighboring pecan orchard, I stepped over the barbed-wire fence and onto the animal trail that headed west to the old river channel. Perhaps I would run across Daisy deer, or maybe, with the breeze out of the south, she would catch my scent and come to me. Mostly, I wanted to walk a distance and sit quietly, hopefully getting a good photograph or two of area wildlife.
Over the years of clearing paths in our own woodland area, I found it common to make discoveries about the animals that frequented our ten acres of land. FD was quite knowledgeable about identifying tracks and prints, and could easily identify scat (droppings, feces, dirt, excrement) of various animal species. Sometimes it was apparent to him that a specific feces might have been left by the male or female of the species. He seemed to be able to spot an area where a deer might have been bedding down just moments before. He would notice browse that had been nibbled on earlier in the day… and, somehow, could tell if it had been bitten off a week ago. For FD, the type of gnawing or bite, and the height at which the vegetation was cut, indicated what species might have feasted there. He often located runs and hidey-holes that animals used, tucked away under the canopy of shrubs or scrubby trees of the woodlands. And sometimes, he found treasures of bones and skulls resting atop the ground or partially buried in the thickets or near a lay. Over time, FD taught me to decipher tracks and signs of animal or bird presence. This was a much bigger world than I could ever imagine. Trails and various animal prints were only the tip of the iceberg.
This particular Saturday, I headed down a narrow, and well-traveled animal trail leading directly west along an old fence line. I did not have to travel far before I noticed freshly rooted soil. Wild hogs have been feeding in the pecan orchard this year. Apparently, they enjoy eating the golden-meated nuts, as evidenced by the large, tubular clumps of hog feces I encountered while picking pecans in the orchard a few weeks ago. Today, I saw the same feces, appearing dry and almost powdery. This indicated to me, the hogs had not been in this area for a while. Perhaps they had their fill of pecans and were rooting around elsewhere along the river in search of other good eats.
Our neighbors that own the pecan orchard, now have cattle grazing in the pasture that joins the orchard. Because of this, I had to keep my eyes open, being careful not to step in the occasional cow pie along the way. As a child, I learned fairly quickly that the dry-looking exterior of a cow patty could be quite misleading. When it came to bovine piles of poop, the pile might look dry and safe to tread on but, often, a greenish, fermenting, glob of slimy goo lay beneath. This green slime was impossible to remove from shoes or any clothing, not to mention being “slick as snot” and quite a fall hazard if one was unfortunate enough to step foot on the slippery mass of dung! I am quite sure the cow patties that pioneer folks used as burning material for stoves had to have been the very aged and dry “cured” version.
Working my way through and around downed trees and timber along the old river channel, I stopped to sit for a spell on a large fallen tree that had been struck by lightning years ago. The bark-stripped trunk was smooth from aging in the elements over the years, and a black streak of charred wood ran along the side. I marveled at the blackened pattern as I sat on the large, downed tree. At one end, lay a pile of something red and berry-like. On closer inspection, I determined the pile was raccoon scat. A broken pecan shell lay just in front of the droppings. Until this discovery, I had no idea raccoons ate pecans!
Moving to the center of the downed tree, I sat quietly for about thirty minutes. But only a lone hawk showed up to perch high in a tree nearby. So, not seeing any other animals or birds of interest to photograph, I moved on after a time, into the thicker brush and trees along the old, dry river channel. The water used to flow freely here, meandering through the nearby city park. But, during flooding that occurred nearly a decade ago, the river re-routed itself, cutting a new channel another half-mile west. I did not, however, plan to walk to the new river channel today. I simply wanted to follow a few well-traveled animal paths in closer proximity to the ten-acre ranch to see if I could detect anything interesting going on.
Just then, as a sign to resist following the new river channel further to the west, I noticed the familiar blaze orange color of Daisy deer’s collar lying ahead of me, dropped in a pile of downed Hackberry tree limbs. I picked up the reflective collar and noted its tattered and ripped condition and that there was little for me to salvage from it. Apparently, the collar had survived lots of scrapes, rips and weathering before weakening at an area where the Velcro joined the duct tape. As I studied the collar’s condition, I noted that it had, at least, performed the function it was designed for – protecting Daisy during deer hunting season. Given that I had just seen Daisy at the corn feeder the previous Saturday with both collars on, it was obvious now that, within the week, she had lost the larger, reflective collar within a quarter-mile of our home. She should still be wearing a narrow, snap collar that was blaze orange, but not reflective. In time, that collar will likely come off as well, after enduring months of wear, tear and standing up to the elements of nature.
Not too far away from Daisy’s old collar, in a scattered pile on the ground, were the familiar pellet-type feces of Daisy and her kind. Just a few steps beyond that, I could see another pile of pellets. Daisy and her friends had likely spent an afternoon bedded down in the soft spring grasses nearby, hidden in the heavily wooded area. These deer pellets were just a couple of days old.
I continued to follow the well-traveled animal path I was on, while noting all sorts of little arteries and trails off the main path. One such route produced a small, dry, tubular fox dropping. It consisted mostly of hair. I often find this particular scat along the pathways in our woods, and even in our front yard. We see gray foxes almost every evening and early morning along these pathways. Often, I see the foxes in front of the house when I let my little dogs out to do their business just before bedtime. Many times, Zoe, Bear and Tori will have noses to the ground, inspecting the interesting deposits left behind by the foxes. Like dogs, they too mark their area, by leaving their own urine and droppings nearby.
Heading back to the feeding area just below the slope to our house, I noticed a lone set of hoof prints passing under the barbed-wire fence to the corn feeder and then to the water bucket. The hoof prints moved back to the feeder, then on to the animal trail and back in to the pecan orchard. Daisy must have come to feed in the night or early morning hours. These prints were fairly fresh.
I also saw tiny bird prints near the feeder tray on the ground, and bird droppings around the water tub. In addition to these, a collection of Dove droppings lay under the large branch of a Hackberry tree. Apparently, the limb had provided a resting spot for a couple of doves that roosted the night before. Along with the bird droppings, squirrels had left scratch marks along fallen tree trunks and scattered pecan shells lay all around. I discovered small paw prints of, perhaps, a feral cat near the water tub and along the trail back to the food plot FD had planted for Daisy deer and her friends. Further back in our woods, I located a strange set of prints in the red dirt along a narrow animal trail that disappeared into an old, abandoned culvert. I later researched my findings and decided these were either skunk or opossum prints. And of course, the paw prints of either wild or domestic dogs, or perhaps coyotes, prevailed all through the woods and along the pathways.
All around, I found signs and indications that wildlife flourishes in this small woodland, where it is easy to discover paw or hoof prints, a tuft of hair caught in barbed wire fence, or skeletal remains laying askew in the tall prairie grasses. These are the obvious indicators of life and death, but I still find it a bit comical that I catch myself investigating a pile of poop, and wondering what critter might have left its mark in the woods. I might even carefully pick it apart, looking for clues about diet, size of the animal, and indication of the age of the scat. Oddly, there is purpose and a sort of “fingerprint” to scat in the animal world, and I consider any clue I find in it a treasure if it helps to bring about understanding.
So the next time you discover droppings on a hike or a walk, or while doing a little gardening, stop and observe it closely. You never know what secrets might be revealed by such a find, now that you have the scoop on poop!
© Day by Day the Farm Girl Way…