It all started with my neighbor’s simple question, “Who is not picking up their dog’s poops?” It had not occurred to her that what she had seen were not poops from dogs, but had been deposited on the path by some of our local wildlife. We had heard coyotes at night and had caught them with a night-vision camera, and I had noticed fur and fragments of bones in some of those deposits, properly called scats.
Fur and fragments of bone, from what? We wondered what our predators had been eating and realized that we might be able to find out.
As my neighbor Jeannie walked her dog all over the Carleton-Willard Village campus (and picked up the dog’s poops), she and I both started picking up other scat – carefully, in small plastic bags. I had seen the clear association of each type with the corresponding tracks in the winter snow and then confirmed the identification by consulting Google Images. I covered my table with sturdy plastic that could easily be washed down, then put down a sheet of waxed paper for each specimen. We wore disposable gloves and used the tips of small paring knives to pick the scats apart. The first happy discovery was the surprising lack of any unpleasant odor.
To see the images below at full size, click each one
Little bones and bone fragments were well wrapped in even more indigestible fur, but our curiosity drove us on, through painstaking examinations. Often there were large enough pieces of bone that the prey could be identified. Rabbits and squirrels had frequently been on the menu, and not just for coyotes. Two of our specimens were from foxes, which, like coyotes, prefer leaving their calling cards in conspicuous places (like the way some people use Facebook). Jeannie also found some very different scat that turned out to be from a fisher (not fisher cat, please). One time a fisher had eaten a muskrat, as evidenced by its distinctive fur. Another time a fisher had eaten a porcupine, being the only predator capable of doing so.
Unfortunately, nutritious prey was not the only thing our local predators ate. Both coyotes and fishers also ate trash, including disposable but not digestible wipes, and occasional bits of plastic packaging. This finding prompted us to pick up every piece of trash on the campus (there really wasn’t much), although the animals could have found it elsewhere.
Another neighbor has a knack for finding owl pellets – the indigestible parts of an owl’s prey which are regurgitated before the next meal. So our research extended to these flying predators as well. A Great Horned Owl had eaten a full-grown rabbit, and a month later, it had dined on voles and deer mice. Deer mice have beautiful white underparts, which explained some tiny tufts of white fur that stood out from the darker mass.
We had a lot of fun as we played detective, discovering clue after clue. I remembered my comparative anatomy class and Googled various animal skeletons. Jeannie kept finding scats and telling friends about our project. Several neighbors came to watch the process, not offering to help but asking good questions and joining the laughter. We feel that we know our wildlife neighbors much better now.