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Walk Softly: Birds don't poop like people

by Geoffrey Carpentier

If you’re a faithful reader, you might already know poop fascinates me, not so much ours, but that of animals. Some invertebrates don’t poop at all, but that’s a story for another time. Mammals, all generate separate streams of waste called urine and faeces. Fish also pass urine and faeces, but it is a variable process, where in, some species pass both streams through the same opening (i.e. Cloaca). In others, they pass one through the anal orifice and the other through the gills. However, birds are different.

Birds, like all other animals, have to generate and expel waste materials, as they can be toxic and obviously heavy, and this might affect their ability to fly or swim. Whilst mammals excrete nitrogenous wastes, mainly in the form of urea, birds convert it to uric acid or guanine. The amount of waste a bird generates depends partly on the species, the time of year, what it’s eating, what it’s doing, and even how much water it is consuming. Small birds (e.g. sparrows) poop every 15 minutes, on average, while larger birds (e.g. geese) expel waste every hour or so.

Birds have very efficient digestive and absorptive systems, which operate at a high metabolic rate, so they poop frequently, but still retain the best parts of what they’ve eaten. Rarely do birds poop at night, unless they are nocturnal hunters, of course, as they are resting and their metabolic processes slow down significantly.

So here are the basics:

Birds don’t have bladders so they can’t store waste. They poop and pee at the same time because they don’t have an anus or urethra, like we do. They have a single opening called a cloaca, through which a mixed stream of uric acid and faeces passes. Looking at bird poop you will see a runny white and black mixture of waste. The white part is the uric acid, from the kidneys, the clear liquid portions are urine from the kidneys, while the the small dark bits are the faeces, from the intestines. Sometimes you might see fibrous material, and even fragments of nuts and berries or bones, in the waste. This depends on what the bird was eating and how quickly it is expelled it from the body.

In some birds, like geese and turkeys, the liquid portion is diminished and a more solid two coloured waste emerges. This still is a mixture of faeces and urine however. Birds, which consume a higher ratio of seed in their diet, often have greener poop because of the chlorophyll in the food they eat, again evident in turkey poop, for example. Unseen in these waste streams are other enzymes and bacteria, which the bird no longer needs to aid in digestion.

I think it’s time to talk about some nifty facts about bird poop; ready? First of all, birds can poop while they are flying, a nice multi-tasking talent. Bird poop may be used to mark territories, much as a dog pees on everything, to mark its territory in the neighbourhood. Some studies indicate, the placement of poop in the local environment is a means to communicate, to other rivals; “I’m here so stay away!” Excessive pooping may be an indicator of stress, when a threat is identified. Hard to see in wild populations, birds do look at each other’s poop, on occasion. Individuals can gather information about their species, health, reproductive status and their emotions, according to some studies. Some birds poop on their own legs, to cool down. This is evident on many scavenging birds, such as the Marabou Stork, now that’s unpleasant!

Okay now a few more tantalizing and fantastic poop facts. Bird poop is a major mechanism to help plants with seed dispersal. Many birds can't digest all the seeds they eat, so they poop them out in distant places, ensuring a new generation of plants is created elsewhere. Birds don’t fart, yes, you read that correctly. This is due to their intestinal system being truncated, so they can’t store waste. Well that may be enough for now!

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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