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The truth about poo

Chris Packham Chris Packham | 15:52 UK time, Thursday, 3 June 2010

Editor's note: Chris previously posted this on the Autumnwatch blog but we just couldn't stop him banging on about poo (watch tonight's show and you'll see), so here it is again.

I'm sure that many people will consider what they are about to read as a little quirky if not completely mad. But here goes. Ever since I first started to roam and ramble I've been looking at poo. Not a casual glance or a furtive squint, but a hands-and-knees close-up, full critical examination in terms of colour, size, shape, texture, content and, of course, smell.

There is of course a perfectly rational explanation for this. Poo tells me things. Fundamentally it immediately informs me what has been active in the area.

Some species are nocturnal or incredibly shy or both and thus their very presence is difficult to detect. The otter is an obvious example. Yet otter poo (or spraint) is pretty easy to find if there are otters about and very easy to identify, certainly through smell if the sample is sufficiently fresh. Indeed, on a chilly winter's morning the bitter twang rising from a steaming spraint is a delicious shot in the nasal passages, always a treat to savour.

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Video: the clue is in the carnivore poo

So otter is easy as are fox, badger, weasel and stoat. All of these have diagnostic aromas despite being variable in terms of their form due to the recently consumed diet. Position is also important, for instance badgers deposit their faeces in pits called 'latrines' which act as territorial boundary markers. Deer are easy too, with a little practice. As are bats, although I'm not any sort of expert when it comes to chiropteran stuff myself.

Bird poo is often a little more tricky than mammal but through direct observation and practice you can get quite close to species specific identification. Narrowing down into groups is a start. Again, as an example, raptor poo or 'mutes' typically have a very thick and plastery white component which when dry is powdery.

Tawny owl mutes often seem to have a yellowy wash, as will kestrels', occasionally perhaps an artefact of their broadly similar diets. More investigation is needed here! Poo produced by the grouse family is really easy to identify as it is produced in neat cylindrical pellets. I'm lucky to have in my collection red and black grouse, ptarmigan and the real prize, capercaillie excrement. Obviously location helps in guaranteeing correct analysis but so does relative diameter, an artefact of the bird's size.

Perhaps my favourite bird poo (and I'm sure many other people's too) is produced by the green woodpecker. Again cylindrical, it can be found on short grassy areas where the birds have been foraging. It is about 6-8mm in diameter and somewhere between 25-35mm in length. Its outer skin is white and the interior, visible at either end, is tan brown and roughly textured, so it can look a bit like a crumpled length of a cigarette.

The real joy of woodpecker poo, however, is picking up a dry length and squashing it in the palm of your hand as this reveals the contents as the bodies of countless ants which the bird had eaten, lots of tiny legs and heads and abdomens. Superb.


  • Comment number 1.

    Chris, I enjoyed your talk on poo. downside it was a bit short. I have a regular meat eating mammal in my garden and I have no idea what it is!!. But, it does leave little presents behind. They tend to be along side the fence, I know it's not cat poo, as it's a different look and smell. it's very black, about 4-5 inches long, about 2 inches thick, and tapered at both ends. It did have bits in it but to be honest I didn't want to disturb a scent marker, so I gave it a good sniff but I couldn't smell anything.
    Can you help me identify it?
    thanks, from wags x

  • Comment number 2.

    are you obsest with poo because it sounds like you are and was that a gess about what they are eating

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi plang104, I wouldn't say obsessed. But I do live in a mixed environment (woods, fields, hedgerows, etc) and I scavenge wild foods and while i'm scavenging I notice poo (you really have to, the amount of times I've sat in scat!!). I also grow my fruit and veg, and I saw the little present when I was turning the earth. Do you have any idea what it is?
    thanks, wags xx

  • Comment number 4.

    I have to say - Chris you remind me of a naughty schoolboy sometimes with your wacky sense of humour - its great - of course wildlife is serious but by making it more amusing you introduce it to your younger audience - thankyou ! Wenjoy

  • Comment number 5.

    I also liked you're poo talk:) Poo recognition is great even if you dont dig about in it as it it often the first sign that an animal is about!:)

    I also noticed that Chris is up to his old drop in a music reference tricks! Last night I think it was the Cure 10.15 on a saturday Night, and was the T-shirt Butterfly on a Wheel by the Mission?? I dunno could be imagining it... either way it's fun:)x

  • Comment number 6.

    Agree with Wagtail above, great article but far too short!!! But didn't like the look of the badger poo at all (probably just me being too much of a lame girl) - how can a creature so divine produce something so, well, nasty .....

    More articles on the less palatable side of nature would be great - as far as I am concerned it's all wonderful stuff, however bad it looks (or smells).

  • Comment number 7.

    3. At 6:46 am on 7 Jun 2010, thepastymuncher wrote:

    @ Wagtail-Boogie - rofl - where else woud you get to leave that comment "the amount of times I've sat in scat!!"

    There is a great little book to help identify animal poo - called "What S*at That? One for the coffee table in all out homes I think.

  • Comment number 8.

    Wagtail-boogie, I think you are describing hedgehog poo. I find this poo every morning in my garden, especially near our cat's food dish and water dish. It is almost black and doesn't smell. But I could be wrong of course.
    Chris, I like your curiosity in poo and the way you present Springwatch, together with Kate, Martin and Simon. A great team!

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi Chris,this is a question about otter poo! There seem to be several otters at the bottom of my garden every night feasting on cray fish of the horrible American kind and leaving well over a dozen spraints a night, as well as a dead rat or water vole,not sure which, but also in the poo my big sis found a couple of strange little objects, I`d like to send a photo but am not sure if i can? The objects look a bit like two halves of a pebble well worn with small circles in the middle,they are about the size of a 5 p and are sort of chalky! I think I saw something recently which makes me believe they may be either part of the ear (?) or eye of a fish. Is this right? cheers, nick

  • Comment number 10.

    going back to last thurs show where Martin was bird ringing and said they had less than 1% of small birds rings returned, is it possible that they have all been predated and eaten and that is why there is no rings returned? and how often do you and indeed can you find these rings in preditors poo??

  • Comment number 11.

    Recently we have seen 2 hedgehogs in our garden, one large and one smaller. We only saw the large one once but the other comes every evening and forages under the bird feeders as well as in the plants. Since their arrival the floor of my potting shed has been used as a latrine by SOMETHING! I am sure it is the hedgehogs but my husband now thinks it is rats. The flooring is concrete slabs so it won't be cats. The poo is dark and up to 3cms long. Please tell me it is not rats!! Could there be a h-hog nest nearby, there is a lot of garden 'stuff' eg pots etc packed in there?

  • Comment number 12.

    On today's program you expressed concerns about the amount of poo generated by certain of your birds of prey. I suggest you send one of your cameramen in at night with a vacuum cleaner to clean them up.

    You could call this item "Our kestrel man hoovers in the dark".

  • Comment number 13.

    Chris, I did ask this on the messageboard but wondered if you knew for sure. You said about the parent swallows cleaning the nest of parasites, but is it just possible that the adult birds rather than just collecting parasites are actually stimulating the babies to produce poo? Almost like hedgehogs do. Do you know of any birds that do this? Surely it would be a good way of keeping the nest clean!

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 15.

    I've been finding poos lately (between April and now) that look rather like large soggy black marbles (about an inch around) with painted white circles. When I pick them up and unfurl them, they keep their shape a lot like hot rubber until. Unlike rubber they don't fall back into place when I let go. When I pull them though, they snap quite brilliantly. Sort of like a well compact cylinder of damp mud and silt. What could they be?

  • Comment number 16.

    Hi Chris, Don't worry. I'm a 60 year old woman who has been obsessed with poo since childhood. As a result I know where anything from a Red Admiral, Peacock, Orange Tip,etc..... caterpillar, to a Hedgehog, Fox, Roe Deer, Pine Martin,...... Swallow, Barn Owl, Magpie, etc...... has passed. ?Not quite sure where this has got me in life though.

  • Comment number 17.

    Hi Chris,sorry.another poo related item.This morning i went out into the garden and found a great big pile of bird poo on one of the gate posts.It was that big that i even had to call over my nieghbour to take a look.In fact i had to take a picture of so i had the proof of the poo!am i a bit weird ?think i answered my own question there.Anyhow if anyone else is as weird and whats to see the pic i'd love to know where i can upload it too on here if its poss.

  • Comment number 18.

    Can you tell me Chris if you're still around, why fox poo smells as strong as garlic? What is it they eat for it to smell like that? I'd love to know. I don't know if I will get an answer or where. But anyway, I look forward to your expertise on poo in Autumnwatch. Have a good summer.Helen


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