Even the Masked Biologist Has to Phone a Friend Sometimes

Jun 7, 2018

Sometimes its not what you know, but who you know. In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist recalls a photo of a forest floor discovery that required help from a colleague to identify.

I admit, it had me totally stumped. I had to call in the opinions of someone smarter than I, an expert in the field. I had someone send me a photo of droppings that I simply could not identify. Honestly, they didn’t even look like droppings. They looked like someone had dumped out some wood pellets in a pile in the snow. Not just a few pellets, either, but a good sized handful. Most of the piles were on or near logging roads or trails that had been snow-covered through most of the winter. I had never seen anything like it. Then, when I started getting out this spring to check on the thaw, I saw some of the same kinds of scat piles.

When I first started working in this field, people still had to use film cameras to take photos of tracks and scat (animal droppings). Then, they would have to get the film developed, and get doubles made, so they could bring or mail me a set. Or, enterprising individuals would simply scoop the poop and bring it to me in a baggie or a jar. Today, with digital cameras, camera phones, email, and texting, I can get fecal photos almost instantly. Trail cameras, likewise, have changed the face of wildlife management.

There are an estimated 19 amphibians, 35 reptiles, 408 birds, and 72 mammals documented in Wisconsin; I have been asked to identify a great number of those by scat, tracks, shed skin, hair, bones, teeth, and blurry photographs. While I know a fair number, and have gotten better over the last decade or so, I admit that I rely heavily on the expertise of my co-workers that have more exposure and experience to certain kinds of animals—especially migratory birds, an admitted weakness of mine.

I am not that good at bones, either – or skulls. I have a good friend who has over a hundred skulls in his collection, and can tell instantly by looking at a skull, or portion of a skull, what animal it came from. One day he came to me with a smile on his face to tell of someone who brought in what they thought was a fish skull. He admitted it took him a minute to figure it out, but he knew it was not a skull. The individual had found the pelvic girdle of a bird. In this person’s defense, if you have ever seen a bird’s pelvic girdle just lying there, it does kind of look like a big fish skull.

Scats and tracks have key identifying features that really help distinguish them. In college, my advisor would relate animal droppings to some kind of candy (tootsie rolls, chocolate covered almonds, etc.) Tracks can tell a lot by their arrangement, overlap, exposed claws or not, the number of toes and so on. When taking a photo for me to examine, put an object in there of a known size, like a business card, pocket knife, etc. Take photos from two different angles. If you are getting tracks, take a photo of a couple of prints as well as one looking up or down the set of tracks. This helps immensely, especially when I have to send it around for help.

So, what were the mystery droppings? They were actually from a ruffed grouse. According to a Ruffed Grouse Society biologist, when grouse snow roost for an extended period, they will defecate in the same spot inside that roost, resulting in a kind of little latrine. The droppings have a lot of wood in them, because grouse have special digestive tracts that allow them to digest fiberous woody tree parts. Grouse snow roost to stay warm and avoid aerial predators, and soft fluffy snow in open areas like logging roads work well for them. When the snow melts, an odd-looking pellet pile remains. With the deeper snow we had in late winter, we had good conditions for snow roosting. Time will tell how well the grouse survived the winter and what we can expect for this spring’s broods.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.