Posts Tagged With: birds

South African Adventure #2 – The Topic of Poo

So the question is, if a bear poops in the woods and there’s no one to step in it, does he really poop?  Or how do you know if it was a bear?  While you chew on that philosophical piece of literary magic, we will move on to discuss the validity and necessity of knowing how to identify animal poo.  This is a very useful skill to possess in the bush, especially when you come across still-steaming scat from a predator and you’re a kilometer from the closest car, building with solid walls, or even large tree.  You need to know what animal is nearby so you can accurately assess your situation.  If it’s a porcupine who made the tracks, you’re probably not going to run into a problem.  If it’s a lion, you might. You might run into several problems, in fact.

You also learn that predator poo is called scat.  Herbivore poo is called dung.  BUT omnivore poo is simply called, well, poo.  I don’t know why.  And I promise you, I’ve actually asked.

Spoor, which is another term you learn, has NOTHING to do with poo, though to me it sounds like it should.  Spoor is animal footprints or tracks.  There are trackers here who can read spoor like the Sunday paper and can tell you not only which animal walked by the spot in which you are standing, he can tell you when the animal walked by, whether it was actually walking, strolling, galloping, or bolting, and what the weather was like on that day at that particular moment.  I’ve honestly questioned some of them simply because I could not see where they were getting their information from when all I could see was the following: two tiny indentations, a small skid mark, and what looked like a dragging string that intermittently disappeared.  These trackers looked at that same abstract combination and said, ‘monitor lizard, female, moving east towards the river to get out of the midday sun’.  What???

I admit, I’ve gotten better, and now I can even spot the spoor, scat or dung AND correctly identify all of it from a car.  I don’t even have to be standing on top of it (and ideally am not standing on top of it anyway) to do so.  I can tell you that cat spoor (aside from cheetah) does not have the tiny indentations from claws because cats draw their claws in when they move about.  Cheetahs are the feline exception to this – they have semi-retractable claws because their preferred method of hunting depends on their running, and they need those claws for traction at top speeds.  Cats also have three lobe marks at the back of the heel pad – two bigger lobes on the outsides and one smaller middle lobe.  Don’t know why.  Sorry.

Members of the dog family have two lobes at the back of the heel pad AND claw marks.  Hyena also have the same set-up, adding to the confusion as to which animal species they fit into.  However, hyena are NOT a dog OR a cat – they are a species all their own.  And they are probably one of the coolest and most interesting animals out here.

Elephant spoor looks a bit like someone bounced a really large ball on the ground.   Each print of a full-grown adult is about twice the length of an adult human male’s, and about three times as wide.  And though the tracks do differ slightly according to species, both black and white rhino spoor looks like something from the Rorschach ink blot test.

Antelope spoor is dainty and pointed, like an arrow.  Level of pointiness is based on the species.  Zebra and giraffe spoor looks like varying degree of horse hoof.  Warthog spoor looks like the ‘track’ of a woman’s stiletto heel.  Interestingly, that’s also what they resemble when walking – a woman wearing stilettos.

Baboon and monkey spoor, not surprisingly, looks eerily similar to human hands and feet.  Otters, oddly enough, does a bit as well.  Then you get porcupine, polecat, mongoose, honey badger, monitor, and all other manner of small mammal and reptile.  Their spoor all has its own identifying features.  Porcupine in particular is interesting because it looks like a puzzle of varying- shaped splotches.

And then you have snakes.  Those tracks are VERY helpful to know.  Some resemble an ‘S’, which is the kind of a track you would probably assume a serpentine creature would create.  However, some snakes, such as pythons, move more like a caterpillar, picking their bodies up and sort of throwing themselves forward a bit at a time.  It’s called rectilinear movement.

Spoor I have a handle on.  Scat and dung, not so much.  The good thing is, I can at least tell you if it’s a predator’s poo based on whether there are hairs in the droppings, though I still can’t necessarily tell you WHICH predator left the present.  All of it stinks, regardless.  There’s nothing quite like the smell of half-digested meat, especially when some predators will happily feed on a decomposing carcass.  Of course, when you’re a lion and your kill rate can be less than 50%, plus your prey runs away from you, you can’t afford to be particularly choosy about what you’ll eat.

As for dung, I can tell if it’s an elephant (size is an easy indicator here – think small piles of oversized, brown softballs), or which type of rhino dung it is based on what the dung consists of.  Black rhinos are browsers with a prehensile upper lip.  They break off bits of their favorite munchies by tearing pieces off the branches, creating sharp, 45-degree angular spears, and since they don’t digest particularly well, their dung has plenty of these little daggers in it.  White rhinos are grazers and eat primarily grass, so their dung is fairly uniform and stringy.  Buffalo leave the equivalent of cow patties, and the smell is just as potent.

With antelope, I’m a lost cause.  Giraffe dung is about the same size as an animal half its size.  Duiker, springbok, nyala, impala – their dung is all almost the same size and shape, which is interesting since the animals themselves range in size significantly.

So many amazing ways to ‘read’ the local newspaper of who’s been in and about camp each day.  I will get it all figured out some day.  For now, the fact that I can distinguish between potentially dangerous game and Bambi is enough.  I’ll get there.

I’ve included some spoor/actual animal feet to help you understand a bit about this topic.  Unfortunately, through poor labeling, I can’t seem to find all the tracks I took pictures of over the months I’ve been in the bush.  So I hope you don’t mind that the picture pickings are slim.  I elected to NOT include scat/dung, just because.

On a completely unrelated note, because I’m not really sure if the term ‘spoor’ is technically a plural or singular, I’m not quite sure which tense should be used in many of these sentences.  Please bear with me on this editorial conundrum.  Sadly, I have actually given this a lot of thought.  You’d think I had nothing better to do….

Song of the day: “I Want to Be Like You” from Disney’s The Jungle Book


All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure Thought for the Day – Beauty in the Skies, Survival in the Sounds

look at me, look at me!

look at me, look at me!


Can anything evade an eagle eye?

Can anything evade an eagle eye?

What do I spy with my little eye...

What do I spy with my little eye…

I’ve been learning South African birds.  Bird calls, bird flight patterns, bird mating rituals, etc. etc. etc.  What do you want to know about a bird, South African or otherwise?  Ask away and I will supply whatever answers I can.  I’m on this mission, and it is a mission, to learn about birds for several reasons.  One, after spending so much time around them, I’ve slowly built up an appreciation for them and honestly get a rush out of being able to identify them by their calls.  Two, like everything else I seem to learn out here, knowing your birds can be potentially life saving.

I’ll admit, begrudgingly, that another big motivator for me to learn these birds was the embarrassment I felt when asked by my fiance what some of the indigenous birds in New York and New Jersey were, and finding I could only name about five.  Obviously after learning the South African feathered flocks, I will have no greater knowledge of the avian armies of my childhood home, but one step at a time here.  The sheer fact that I’m bothering to learn them at all is huge for me.  Eventually I will learn at least a few dozen from my home region.  Eventually.  Right now I’m just happy to be able to distinguish the doves from the shrikes from the kingfishers.

It pays to know what the animals know when you live in the bush.  They use signals we’ve grown to ignore, signals we’ve insulated ourselves from in our little castles.  Certain bird behaviors and calls indicate danger, and when you have to live by your wits out here, it pays to know which birds do this, what they do, and how they sound.  The oxpecker is one such bird that it behooves you to know.  It might be the only alarm you’ve ever appreciated.

The oxpecker lives on ticks that parasitize just about every big animal out here.  You know them from wildlife documentaries – they’re the small, grey birds with brightly-colored eyes and beaks, rappelling down the necks of giraffes, tucking behind the ears and in the nostrils of buffalo, and nipping at the hindquarters of rhino and hippo.  They seem to steer clear of elephant, for some reason (maybe the trunk is simply too dexterous of an appendage for them to evade) and you don’t see them on the lions either.  But then again, I’m not sure if I’d be all over a lion either.

Oxpeckers practice mutualism, which means both parties involved benefit from the arrangement.  The oxpecker gets his meal of lovely bloodsucking parasites; the rhino/giraffe/buffalo/etc. gets a personal pest removal system free of charge.  However, that mutualism turns to parasitism when the oxpeckers still want a meal, and, for the next fix, turn to vampirism.  Oxpeckers have a tendency to home in on an animal’s preexisting wound and go for any bits of coagulated blood.  Munching away, the birds then reopen the wound, keeping it from healing.  This clearly oversteps the ‘mutually beneficial’ situation.  But that’s neither here nor there, really.  All I care about oxpeckers at this time is that they are alarm birds.

When you see a bunch of oxpeckers fly up suddenly out of the brush, you know there is something potentially dangerous lying in wait.  Same goes for certain terrestrial birds such as guinea fowl, spurfowl and francolins (also known as heart-attack birds).  These birds have a fascinating ability to pop out of nowhere and literally stop your heart.  You have to keep in mind, though, before you try to catch them and wring their scrawny little necks, that you are a threat to them too.  And I have to say, given how much damage we as people do, we are by far the most fearsome and dangerous animals anywhere.

Song for the day: ‘Hard to Handle’ – The Black Crowes


All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Baby giraffe with oxpeckers

The Mobile Buffalo Cleaning Service


Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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