January in the garden can be quite boring. Annuals are gone, and perennials and trees are dormant waiting for warmer weather. Still, I need to go outside and survey the once life-filled areas, even when they are brown, just to check on things. It is during this time of frozen ground and monotone palette that one can see what normally would be obscured and not noticed. Easily seen now, especially on top of snow,  is scat, it is the excrement of animals; their poop. Yes, this article is about animal poop and how to identify which animal dropped it.
Scat is a sign left by other visitors to your garden. The purpose of scat is elimination and to mark the animal’s territory. It could be a predator animal such as fox and coyote that eat smaller animals like rabbits, voles and chipmunks which have the potential to be a pest in your garden. In this case, predator scat would be a welcome find. Domestic cats and dogs might leave their ‘offerings’ in areas in which you would be digging where you might come in contact with worm parasites and diseases that could infect humans. Take a shovel and remove dog and cat droppings to the garbage.

As a horticulturist at the UConn Home Garden Education Center, the public brings us plant and insect samples for identification and disease diagnosis. On occasion we have also been brought what the client called ‘crap in a bag’, and asked ‘what shat that?’ That fact being revealed, I still love my job. The observation, dissection and research of scat have led me to share this questionably valuable information here.

Scat in a bag nrri.umn.edu.jpg

Scat in a bag nrri.umn.edu.jpg

As a safety warning, never handle droppings to prevent disease and parasites. Wear gloves and a mask if dissecting, and use tools that can be disinfected after. Clean and disinfect microscope if using. Dissecting scat will tell us the diet of the animal. Many seeds will pass through the digestive tract intact and still be very identifiably. Grass eaters will have bits of undigested straw and fiber strands throughout the scat. Bits of fur and bones tell us the animal that produced the scat was a predator of other animals.

Coyote scat with fur and bones, Harpercollege.edu photo

Coyote scat with fur and bones, Harpercollege.edu photo

Raccoon scat with seeds, Harpercollege.edu

Raccoon scat with seeds, Harpercollege.edu

Before breaking apart the pieces of scat, identify the shape. Is it a sphere or a cylinder? Spherical, round and pellet-like, scat comes mainly from herbivores, plant eaters. These include rabbit, shrew, mouse, chipmunk, red and grey squirrel, which will be on the smaller size. Deer and moose will be larger pellets.

Chipmunk, fcps.edu photo

Chipmunk, fcps.edu photo

deer and rabbit scat, photo from biokids.umich.edu

deer and rabbit scat, photo from biokids.umich.edu

Mouse droppings, photo by Kim Cabrera, teacher.edmonds.wednet.edu

Mouse droppings, photo by Kim Cabrera, teacher.edmonds.wednet.edu

Round and slightly flattened spheres are made by rabbits.
Elongated small spheres are made by chipmunk, gray squirrel, mouse, red squirrel and shrew.

Cylinder shaped scat are primarily from carnivores, mostly meat eaters. They can be pointed, blunt, broken or twisted. All of these characteristics can help to identify the creator of the scat.Scat color can vary greatly among the same species making it not a great help, unless the scat is white. White scat comes from birds and reptiles.

Turkey Fan, photo by Pamm Cooper

Turkey Fan, photo by Pamm Cooper

Turkey scat, photo by Kim Cabrera, teacher.edmonds.wednet.edu

Turkey scat, photo by Kim Cabrera, teacher.edmonds.wednet.edu

Larger pellets or spheres are made by deer and moose.

deer scat, biokids.mich.edu

deer scat, biokids.mich.edu

Moose scat, photo from colby.edu biology

Moose scat, photo from colby.edu biology

Pointed cylinders come from fox, coyote and domesticated dogs.

Red Fox scat, Harpercollege.edu photo

Red Fox scat, Harpercollege.edu photo

Red Fox, fcps.edu

Red Fox, fcps.edu

Coyote scat, Harpercollege.edu photo

Coyote scat, Harpercollege.edu photo

Coyote, amos.indiana.edu

Coyote, amos.indiana.edu

Broken cylinders are left by bobcat and domesticated cats.

Bobcat Scat, luresext.edu photo

Bobcat Scat, luresext.edu photo

Bobcat, cis.fiu.edu

Bobcat, cis.fiu.edu

Twisted cylinders are from members of the weasel family; mink, marten, fisher and weasel. These will have hair and pieces of bone in them.

Fisher cat scat, colby.edu

Fisher cat scat, colby.edu

Fisher Cat, animaldiversity.org.

Fisher Cat, animaldiversity.org.

Blunt cylinders will be from raccoon or bear. They vary greatly depending on the time of year and the food sources available. Bear scat usually contains lots of seeds, including berries and nuts.

Raccoon Scat, uwosh.edu

Raccoon Scat, uwosh.edu

Raccoon, ct.gov

Raccoon, ct.gov

Bear Scat, geneseo.edu

Bear Scat, geneseo.edu

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Opossum and skunk scat are rarely found, and can be quite varied in shape. Rather than finding these two’s scat, you will smell their musky scent in areas they have visited, and find signs of digging in the soil.

Skunk dug holes, photo by OSU.edu

Skunk dug holes, photo by OSU.edu

Opossum, msu.edu

Opossum, msu.edu

Skunk, msu.edu

Skunk, msu.edu

Earthworms leave castings on top of the soil during the night. These are a rich source of nutrients and beneficial to the garden.

Earthworm castings, entomology.osu.edu

Earthworm castings, entomology.osu.edu

Earthworm entomology.osu.edu

Earthworm entomology.osu.edu

If identifying animal waste to tell who is spending time in your garden is not to your liking, look for the footprints they leave and identify the tracks.

-Carol Quish

A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune of attending an ASA-SSSA-CSSA
(agronomy) meeting in San Antonio, Texas. It’s a beautiful city built up around
the Alamo with a huge convention center, tons of shops and restaurants, and a most
unique and inviting river walk. The convention center is located next to Hemis
Fair Park, the site of the 1968 World’s Fair, and one can still take an
elevator to the top of the Tower of the Americas to view the city and its
landscape.

San Antonio Botanical Garden

There were many, many interesting speakers and posters. Among the reams of
information I picked up was some interesting facts about an unusually active
type of worm that are proliferating in my dahlia beds. I was talking to Dr.
Josef Gorres from the University of Vermont about his poster on what effects
earthworms have on natural ecosystems when I mentioned these strange acting
worms. He told me they were ‘jumper worms’ (an Amynthas species) which originated in Asia and made their way to
America via the horticultural trade. They were first noticed in Connecticut and
New York in the 1980’s.

Most people were brought up to believe that earthworms are beneficial creatures and in some situations they are. They till
the soil and help break down organic matter and mix it with the soil particles. Doing so improves the soil structure and makes soil chemical conditions
conducive to primarily annual crop plants.

One problem with these worms is that they are an epigeic species which means they live and feed close to the soil surface. These jumper worms, often referred to
as ‘Alabama jumpers’ quickly consume vast quantities of organic matter right on top of the ground, like your mulch or the duff layer of a forest floor. When I
would weed or plant or dig up my dahlias, I noticed the soil was exceptionally well-aggregated and every shovelful seemed to contain a half dozen or more of
these jumper worms. My dahlias do not seem to be adversely affected by the worms so far and probably appreciate the slight increase in pH and calcium
concentration that have been noted in some studies on these worms. But, dahlias are not native to New England.

This same statement cannot be said for some of our native plants, not just in New England but in the Midwest as well. Keep in mind that northern forested
ecosystems developed pretty much without earthworms. The glaciers that came down over the land basically wiped out any earthworm populations. Forests shed
their leaves or needles and in cooler northern climates, these accumulate of the forest floor creating a duff layer. Many species of native plants,
birds,  insects, amphibians, microorganisms, and more depend on this duff layer for reproduction, habitat, food and other essentials.

Picture from www.personal.ksu.edu by Dr. Bruce A. Snyder

When invasive earthworms, like the Alabama jumpers, either migrate or are transported to a forested area, they quickly devour the leaf litter and duff
layer. They also alter the soil chemistry favoring exotic invasive plant species like garlic mustard and stiltgrass. Native species of plants and animals decline. There are also cases of
herbaceous perennials, like hostas which are often planted in woodland gardens, declining because of root feeding by these worms.

Some signs of invasion into woodland areas would be a reduction of the forest floor duff layer, fewer or no spring ephemerals (like trilliums and dog-tooth
violets), and even areas in woods with bare mineral soil exposed. Often one will notice non-native invasive plants making their way into the forest. In
light of the other imminent threats to our beloved New England forests including climate change, development, invasive species, and deposition of nutrients
and other materials from the atmosphere, the spread of this and other species of invasive earthworms, does not bode well and we should do our best to educate
ourselves and others about ways to slow their incursion.

To start with, I noticed several websites that had Alabama jumper worms for sale either to use in vermicompost bins or some sites were actually telling folks to
add them to their gardens. One site lauded the fact that these worms are able to survive winters in many northern states! Needless to say, it is not a good
idea to purchase and release these worms into our New England soils. It is also important to try not to move worms when bringing new plants into your gardens
or when giving plants from your gardens to others. Invasive worm species can also be spread by fisherman dumping unused bait into the woods near the lakes
or on the tires of logging trucks and other vehicles.

Also, since these jumper worms have very rapid growth rates, they need copious amounts of organic material. Our gardening practices, therefore, can affect their
populations. Areas with copious amounts of compost or mulch are more likely to be colonized by them. Both compost and mulch are important gardening tools to
many gardeners, including myself, so we need to use them moderately and wisely. Two articles for further reading on this subject are ‘Non-native invasive
earthworms as agents of change in northern temperate forests
’ (Front Ecol. Environ. 2004; 2(8):427-435 and ‘Amynthas and Bipalium – Why the Concern?’ at
Garden Variety Invasive Species blog.

A little more than a week after returning from Texas, we were hit by a heavy, late October snowstorm which ruined many Halloween plans and dumped a foot of wet
snow in my neighborhood causing not only massive power outages but colossal tree damage as well. I am hoping to spend this next weekend beginning to clean
up some of the damage. Our old apple tree just pulled up out of the ground, birches were bowing with their tops stuck in the snow, and now I know where yellowwood
got its name.

Apple tree roots pulled out of ground by weight of snow.

Birches bow to ground

Branch torn from trunk exposing yellow wood.

Until next time,

Dawn

Cluster Fly pep.wsu.edu

Flies inside the house are not a nice addition to the family! Often in warm heated homes during the colder months when most insects should be enjoying a winter rest, we find fat flies slowly buzzing around windows and light bulbs. These are Cluster Flies (Pollenia rudis). Cluster flies over winter as adults in protected sites of rock outcroppings, out buildings and our homes. The make their way in though cracks and crevices, underneath house sidings and through attic vents.  Cluster flies can be identified by using a hand lens to look for yellow or golden hairs on the thorax on this otherwise dark grey fly. The thorax is the body part of the fly where the legs and wings are attached.

Cluster flies are not ‘filth’ flies, do not eat anything in our homes and do not carry any diseases. They develop inside the gut of EARTHWORMS! The life cycle of cluster flies starts in the spring when the fertilized female lays eggs on the soil near an earthworm hole. The egg hatches into a maggot that will travel down the earthworm’s burrow until it finds the worm. The maggot enters the earthworm to feed on the insides of the earthworm, weakening or killing it. Some time later the maggot pupates, changing into the adult fly by the end of summer. It is the same year’s adult spending the winter in homes. In spring, those adults will mate with the females laying her eggs on the soil. The cycle is complete with one generation happening per year.

Prevention is the best control measure. Make sure your windows and screens are intact and closed. Cover  ridge and attic vents with window screening. Caulk cracks and openings on the outside of the home. Chemical insecticides are not recommended for a few flies in the home. Pesticides are not recommended to larvae living in the soil or their hosts. Earthworms are considered beneficial to soil ecology.  Control inside the home can be had by keeping the fly swatter handy!

-Carol