By Clay Newcomb
Anybody wanting to hunt a certain species has to become familiar with the evidence that the animal leaves in the woods. This column is for new bear hunters, and we’ll be breaking down the types of “sign” bears leave. All sign indicates valuable information; where the animal walked, what it is eating, how long it ago it was here, how many animals were here, and the animal’s size. Sign can be broken down into three different categories: scat, tracks and stuff animals do that leaves a mark. It’s really that simple. In this article we’re going to focus on bear scat, which I believe is some of the most important bear sign in the woods. Bear scat is MVP of bear sign.
The terminology used to describe the fecal matter of a bear is an exhaustive list: droppings, scat, stool, poop, bear crap and even more crass words. I’ve settled on using the word scat. It sounds more intelligent than its synonyms, and I can say it to my mom without feeling dirty. I believe scat is the most important type of bear sign, second only to actually seeing a bear. Why? Scat gives two very important clues – what the bear is eating and how recently he stood right there. Unlike ungulates that completely digest their food leaving consistent pellets, bears often have tangible evidence of their food in their scat.
As you grow in your woodsmanship you’ll need to learn what fresh scat looks like. It’s an analysis of moisture content and the definition of the exterior of the pile. Older scat will have deteriorated and have less defined edges. Fresh scat has high moisture content. Old scat is dry. Semi-fresh scat is semi-moist. It ain’t rocket science. Moisture in bear scat is dependent upon temperature, humidity and if the pile is in direct sunlight. Scat in direct sun will dry quicker, forming a crust on the outside within a few hours. Scat in a moist, shadowed area may not form a hardened outer crust for over 24 hours. I routinely put a stick in pile of scat to analyze the moisture content and thickness of the crust. If the inside of the scat is dry, it could be very old and the sign rendered irrelevant. Often, scat will have a dry crust and moist interior giving indication of its age, which is just an educated guess. Scat can remain visible on the ground for several months in the right conditions. Obviously, the best type of scat is going to be very moist indicating the bears were here very recently.
If you pass by the same scat consecutive days, take note of how different it looks based upon the time elapsed. If you make a habit of doing this, you’ll be able to make pretty good assumptions about age.
Where do bears leave scat? Where they eat, travel and bed, they leave scat. Every pile gives you a data point of what the bears are doing. Bears defecate multiple times per day, and even more in the fall when they’re heavily feeding preparing for denning. The amount of scat you see is a good indication of how often a bear (or bears) is using the area. Scat that’s near a food source is a feed sign. If the scat is on a trail, it’s traveling-related sign. If it’s in thick cover and a bear bed is nearby (padded out area), it’s bedding sign. Multiple piles of scat in a small area indicate the bear is feeding, traveling or bedding there often. I like to see multiple piles of different ages, indicating he’s been here for an extended period of weeks or days. Bears are habitual, and he’ll likely be back if some of the scat is fresh.
About Bear Beds
Multiple times I’ve seen a deeply pressed out spot on the ground the shape of a bear, with multiple piles of scat within five feet. This is a bear bed. Bears don’t always bed in the same spot, but when they’re using a concentrated food source, they’ll often use the same bed until that resource runs out. A well-worn bear bed indicates there is a good food source nearby. Find the food source to kill the bear. Usually, the bed will be in thick cover and in a good spot for the bear to detect danger, so it might be hard to hunt him there. However you might catch him moving between his bed and the food.
You’ll be able to gain insight into the bear’s diet by looking at its scat. A bear has an unspecialized digestive system, because they’re carnivores, making them unable to efficiently break down some plant matter. They don’t have a cecum, rumen and some microorganisms, like ruminants, so they poorly digest plant matter, leaving some of it evident in the scat. If bears are eating berries with large seeds, you’ll find them in the scat – persimmons, black gum, paw paws and wild cherries. Bears eating grass will often have strands of grass in the stool. Bears eating insects will often have some exoskeletons evident. Bears eating whole corn will defecate whole kernels of corn. In different regions you’ll learn what scat looks like in relation to certain types of food. For instance, when bears are gorging on acorns their scat has the consistency of peanut butter and will be in a round pile like a cow pie. You might find the odd piece of acorn hull in the scat. However, when they’re eating more fibrous food, the scat will be tubular. That’s an important point, scat can be in a pile or tubular (like a canine).
Size of scat can be used to determine the general size of a bear. It’s simple: big scat is a bigger bear and little scat indicates a smaller bear. Typically, I’m looking at the size of the tubular scat, which indicates the size of the colon. A 100-pound bear isn’t going to have two-and-a-half inch diameter poop covering a Frisbee-sized area. That would be a large, adult bear. A small bear might have a one to two inch diameter tube of scat with the volume of a coffee cup. Make sense? Determining size based upon scat isn’t a hard science, but can you a general idea.
A myth regarding bear scat is that they use it mark their territory or feeding areas. However, there is no science-based evidence of this. Bears simply relieve themselves whenever and wherever they feel the need. It is believed that bears can recognize individuals based upon scat and urine, so perhaps breeding animals gain some information from it. Bears leave scat on trails, in feeding areas, near where they’re bedding, but they also defecate when they’re stressed or scared. Bears often relieve themselves when unexpectedly spooked or right after they’ve been shot. Sometimes bears leave scat when they’re walking up a hill and their body is stressed.
A Practical Hunting Scenario
Let’s say you’ve found ten piles of scat scattered over a 100-square-yard area on a secluded bench on a mountain. The scat appears to have all been made in the last two weeks, and there are still acorns scattered on the ground (available food source is KEY). Is this is a good spot to kill a bear? Absolutely. I’d spend as much time as possible here with the wind in my favor. I might set up a treestand if the sign was very concentrated, but I’d probably just hunt off the ground hoping to stalk the bear if it was out of range. I would hunt mornings and evenings, not much different than the way you’d typically hunt deer. Don’t be afraid to hunt all day.
Here’s another scenario: you find six piles of dried out scat near a paw paw thicket in late October. The paw paws don’t have any hanging fruit and there aren’t any on the ground. It’s clear a bear was using this thicket regularly, but all the scat looks to be a month old. Is this a good spot to kill a bear? Nope. The food source has been exhausted and the bears have moved on. It’s a good sign that you’re in bear country, but doubtful you’ll kill him there today. Keep on trucking and try finding the current food source!
You’re now a bear scat expert. This is the first in our series on understanding bear sign! Look for more articles in the coming issues.