I love my job. Really, I do. Some days I handle plants, insects or snakes; that’s cool. Last week I had to deal with the stinkhorn mushroom stench; not too bad. Yesterday, it was poop… not the smell (thank goodness), but rather the identification of it (actually, its owner). Never in a million years did I think I would spend the better part of my workday trying to identify an animal by its droppings.
It all started upon returning to work Monday morning and seeing evidence of digging in some of the raised beds in the demonstration garden at the Extension office. Just last week, several Master Gardener volunteers sweated and toiled over these beds, pulling out dead and dying plants, leveling the soil and adding mulch. But over the weekend, something decided to get into these beds and mess them up.
So I quickly switched on my Sherlock Holmes persona and started investigating. The digging was predominantly around the outer edges of the raised beds, deeper in some areas than others. Because of the mulch, I couldn’t see any tracks, so that was a dead-end. There was also no evidence of what the suspect was digging at in the soil – grubs, earthworms, who knows? Not much to go on so far…
At first I considered armadillos, – we have at least one that is a permanent resident in the garden, unfortunately – but the raised beds are too high for an armadillo to access.
Then I noticed that the nearby kumquat trees, which were heavy with fruit, had been recently used as a late-night snack bar, of sorts. Half-eaten kumquats hung precariously from the branches, and several more were littered all over the ground below. Could it be roof rats? Please, no!
As I walked around some more, investigating the ground all around the raised beds, I then noticed poop. Lots of it. All along the back sides of the beds, some fresh, some not so fresh. Hmmm….
Judging from the size, shape and texture of the droppings (I know, this is getting gross), it was too big to be from a rat, and too long and dark to be from an armadillo. But an opossum… maybe.
l to r: house mouse, roof rat, Norway rat
Rat droppings are blunt on the ends and measure from about ½” to ¾” in length and about ¼” in diameter. Armadillo poop looks like little round balls of clay because they eat a lot of soil when picking insects and small snails off the ground. Possum scat is larger, about that of a cat or small dog, although it can vary based on its diet.
According to the University of Florida IFAS Extension, “opossums are known as opportunistic feeders. They will eat many different items including bird eggs, chickens, moles, and earthworms, insects, snakes, grass, fruit, pet food, and garbage. Carrion also is a favorite food item” (Source: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw026). We don’t have much of these items (other than earthworms and fruit) available here, so I’m still not convinced we’re dealing with this particular creature.
Needless to say, the evidence is inconclusive. There’s a distinct possibility that there’s more than one culprit here. The next step, then, will be to set a trap and see what bites. A live animal trap baited with some canned cat food will be going in the garden tonight. The mystery continues; I’ll let you know what I find…