It can be a difficult topic for some and I certainly understand why. Let’s just get all the troubling names for it right up front. Dung, droppings, scat, piles, meadow muffins, do-do, leavings, poo, pies, all words that conjure images that are not very pretty. Still, finding animal droppings is part of how I search for experiences with them in the wild. It gives me specific clues into who has been around and some idea of what they’ve been up to.
Some of the loveliest things grow from the ugliness of fertilizer, colorful flowers and a variety of interesting mushrooms for example. Sometimes it’s the surprising shapes of the droppings themselves that bring me a smile.
Cow manure left behind on open rangeland often dries in interesting, even artistic shapes. I’ve seen droppings that are outright comical, some that resemble numbers, arrows that seem to point toward something specific, a question mark.
What I have come to appreciate is that animal scat shows me part of the animal’s story. It isn’t that I set out with the intent of looking for it, but when, let’s say, I happen upon a distinct pile left by a bear, I’m always curious, because through what is left, I get to witness some of the mystery of that animal’s day. Scat can give good information about where he’s been and what he’s been dining on. Has he eaten in the cranberry bogs, or has he been enjoying a variety of wild berries? Are there twists of plastic bag woven throughout the droppings, indicating he has been foraging in human garbage? Is there evidence that it was a mother and cubs that have moved through the hiking terrain I’m traveling?
Coyote dung is particularly distinct and fascinating to me. Sometimes peppered with bits of bone, there is often nothing left behind except thick grayish fibers of undigested fur. I find them left in loops or wavy piles, like fraying rope or coils of undyed wool that someone dropped on the trail.
When I see clusters of small pellets I recognize deer have moved through. When I find piles of larger grassy round stone shapes I know that I am in elk or possibly moose territory and it thrills me. The number and proximity of scat piles to each other can determine how popular an area is, how much it is frequented by a particular species of animal and how recently they may have passed through. Are the pellets dark and fresh or are they dried and beginning to disintegrate?
Sometimes the decay process creates its own delicate artwork, growing a lovely coat of silver mold so that it looks like a soft clump of animal fur was left on the edge of the trail.
I recently found the perfectly dried exoskeleton of a bee laying in a cluster of either elk of moose droppings while hiking in a wilderness area not frequented by humans. The idea that I happened to look down at my feet at just the perfect moment, that my eyes were lucky enough to notice something so unique, overwhelmed me with gratitude. I took a photo of it and left the area with quiet reverence. That is how I feel about all of nature. Lucky to be an observer, grateful to occasionally witness some of this planet’s fleeting secrets.
I don’t apologize for my curiosity of animal scat, or it’s surprises. It’s there I find some of the clues to the ever beckoning mystery, the intrigue of wild stories – the beauty in the dung heap.
Mossy whispers: Beauty can rise to the surface, even in the worst of things. Mystery is a challenge to the mind and a satisfaction to the spirit. The wild story is always there if you are curious enough to search for it. Give yourself a simple gift, consider following the clues for a while.