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Get the straight poop on visiting critters

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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    May 2008

Scat Happens

Get the straight poop on which critters are visiting your backyard with this field guide to what they leave behind.

By Larry Lightner

A couple of months back, the editor of this fine publication called and said he had an unusual problem. He needed my help in identifying the critter that was frequenting his backyard, and asked me to come over. It didn't take but five minutes to see that the culprit was actually two critters in his backyard.

One critter had eaten both of the goldfish from the shallow garden pond, and the other had deposited the remains of a cottontail bunny on the patio, a few feet from the back door. The fish-eater was the easiest to identify because it had left tracks as it crawled atop the nearby hot-tub cover to eat its catch. The tracks were that of a large and lone coatimundi.

The second took a bit of deduction based on the behavior of the animal. But I concluded that it was a cat, and indeed two large male tomcats had been seen visiting the yard. You see, cats like to kill and bring their catch to the door of a homeowner to show their prowess. Sometimes they will eat the critter right on the spot near the door — hence the skeletal remains of the bunny.

What frantic lady hasn't been offended by "Fluffy" proudly bringing a mouse, rat or bird to the door for her to approve of, bewildered when said lady goes into a raging, screaming fit!

Your own backyard critters may not leave such helpful (if sometimes gory) identification behind. But usually there will be something to tell you that you've had visitors — and what kind of critters came calling.

That something is scat!

With some basic, er, scatological knowledge and a familiarity with the piles this area's most common critters leave behind, you can figure out exactly what's using your backyard as a bathroom:

#1. Rabbit — By far the most common deposit left in a yard is that of the lowly bunny rabbit — either cottontail or jackrabbit. Walk around your yard and if there is a bunny inhabiting it, you will find scat: little brown marbles about 1/4 to 3/16 inch in diameter and very round. In color, rabbit scat will appear dark to medium chestnut brown when fresh, and light brown to almost white when old. If old, the pellets will be somewhat scattered about.

#2. Mule deer — This scat is very similar to bunny pellets, but larger and oblong in shape. The scat usually ranges in size from 3/8 to 1/2 inch in length and is bright shiny black when fresh and chestnut brown when old.



#3. Packrat — Normally this deposit will be found in out-of-the-way corners, or in sheds or even in the recesses of a hot tub, as the editor has discovered. It may even be found under the hood of a vehicle, as I've discovered! Packrat scat is two to three times the size of a kernel of rice and black when fresh, turning brown when old. Ordinary mouse scat is similar, but even smaller — only the size of a kernel of rice.


#4. Cat — It is a false assumption to say that cats always bury their feces — they don't! My own Blue-The-Cat never buries his, but leaves it just as he deposits it. Tabby scat is about two inches long and 1/2 inch in diameter, usually tapered at one end. If fresh, it will be black to medium brown and may have strands of hair in it. The scat usually is segmented if the cat is domesticated, and smooth if the cat is on the feral side.  
#5. Gray Fox — Given the recent rabies outbreak (see this month's Ramblin' Outdoors column), it's especially important to know if you have foxes in the neighborhood. As with coyotes, these critters are omnivorous; they eat vegetation, meat and insects. I have found most fox scat to be full of vegetation in the forms of seeds, berries and nuts; thus, it appears to be bright orange in color. The size is about one to two inches when elongated, but it can appear as stool in several separated segments, or in loose piles.

By the way, if the fox has eaten meat, the leavings will be in the form of a turd that's black in color and probably has hair in it. The black color in a predator's stool comes from the ingested blood.

Fox will deposit on top of rocks, on curbs or on walkways, probably as a sign of territory.

#6. Bobcat — Unlike canines, all felines, including Tabby, are meat/insect eaters. Therefore their stool reflects this: It is shiny, smooth and black with very little segmentation and about two to four inches in length and 3/4 to 1 inch in diameter. The stool may or may not have hair in it. When old, the scat turns pale gray to chalky white in color. As with Tabby, bobcats will leave their scat out in the open when it suits them. Bobcats also like to cover fox scat and even that of coyotes with their own, again as a sign of territorial rivalry.

#7. Coyote — Their stools are almost always turd-shaped and three to six inches long and about one to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. A female coyote's deposit is slightly larger than a bobcat's, while a male coyote's will be as long as six inches and one to two inches in diameter. There will usually be two or three separated turds.

If the songdog has eaten a critter, the stool will be smooth, shiny and dark brown to black with or without hair. But most coyote deposits look like large fox scat because of the consumption of vegetation. In this case, it is bright, light brown with berries or nuts visible. The turds may show some segmentation but not nearly as much as a domestic dog's.

#8. Domestic dog — Almost always turd-like, the scat will reflect the size of its maker, but it is usually highly segmented and rough because of the fact that the dog mostly eats dogfood. In color it will be some shade of brown or even red depending on the dye in the food. It will not have signs of berries or nuts in it.

If the scat isn't black, lacks hair and berries, it is probably stray-dog scat.


#9. Cougar — This big feline reflects the behavior characteristics of its smaller cousins, already spoken about. It is definitely a meat-eater! The scat is turd-shaped and looks like big bobcat turds: smooth, shiny and black with copious amounts of hair found in it. When old, the stools turn light gray to chalky white in color. Cougar scat is large, equaling that of a large domestic dog. A female's will be one inch in diameter and four to five inches long; a large male cougar's scat will be up to two inches in diameter and seven to nine inches long. After all, you're talking about a 150 to 200 pound critter! Most cougar turds are tapered at one end.

A cougar may not cover its scat all of the time. Two years ago, I was hunting on a ranch and found feline scat. I told the rancher about it, and he replied that he had seen it and it was coyote scat because cats always cover their toilet.

Of course, I knew different, and the next morning I called in two cougars at the same time. As with bobcats, a cougar will deposit on top of bobcat and coyote scat as a sign of territorial authority; the scat deposits show territorial boundaries and presence.

Both bobcat and cougars like to establish "bathrooms" and will repeatedly go on top of the same spot.


If you find strange stools larger than what I describe in this article, it means that you either have a bear or a person visiting your yard. In either case, I suggest it is time to move!

Larry Lightner writes the Ramblin' Outdoors column monthly for Desert Exposure.

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