A ring of kids stood staring intently at something at the ground. During this particular Junior Ranger program, we were looking for signs of ungulates that lived in Rocky Mountain National Park — Bighorn Sheep, elk, deer and moose. Since we had just put on our “Detective” hats, I went over to check out what “evidence” they had found.
“We’ve been looking for signs that elk or deer have been here. What did you find?”
Their cherubic faces beamed up at me, as they shouted in almost perfect unison, “Poop!”
Poop, or by its more official, scientific name — scat — abounds in the mountains and woods around us. And nothing fascinates small children in the outdoors more than poop. I used to joke that I could do an entire ranger program on the wonders of poop. And boy is there a lot of scat — big, small, pellets, all shapes and sizes.
One of my most memorable ranger stories from my time at Rocky Mountain National Park was from a long-time ranger. He said kids often asked him how can you tell the difference between deer poop, elk poop, and moose poop? After all, they all look like pellets of some sort.
His response was priceless.
“If it looks small enough you could fit up your nose, it’s deer poop. If it’s too big to fit up your nose, it’s elk or moose. And moose poop look like giant milk duds.”
Do kids even still eat milk duds?
Of course, the parents were horrified to think their children would now be traipsing around picking up deer and elk poop and trying to stick it up their noses.
Though we aren’t always lucky enough to get a glimpse of the actual animal, their scat is almost always evident. And the scat has many stories to tell about the animals who live here.
It used to be wildlife biologists frequently sedated wildlife and either put radio collars or ear tags on bears, elk, moose and sheep to track their whereabouts and habits. But these days, they can simply collect their scat and study the DNA, to gain as much or more information about them without having to track and sedate the animal.
A wildlife biologist who studied Bighorn Sheep told us rangers how they could tell what herd the sheep were from, who they mated with, and where and how large their territory is — all from the scat they leave behind.
Another biologist conducted a scientific study on how climate change is impacting pikas who live in the alpine tundra. She asked for the park’s help in collecting pika scat, noting by GPS where the scat was collected from before studying it to understand more about these fascinating creatures referred to as “rock rabbits.” In fact, the collection of the pika scat helped to form an entire new volunteer group at Rocky called the Pika Pellet Patrol.
So as you wonder around the forest, take note of what lays at your feet — there are many clues to those who share these mountain habitats with us.