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From “Call of Nature,” an essay that appeared in Issue 2 of Facility: A Magazine About Bathrooms.

Humans, earthbound and stuck within seemingly unbreakable systems of oppression, have long admired and envied birds’ ability to soar above it all. They are the ultimate symbol of freedom. They are also the only creatures to regularly defecate on us. Encounters with bird poop range from the small and humiliating (a spatter on the forehead, a slip on a fresh goose dropping) to the dramatic and dangerous: a net underneath the Long Island Rail Road tracks once became so weighted with pigeon poop that it burst open, coating an unsuspecting commuter. (Some Ozone Park neighbors considered the hazard so awful that they longed for the return of local mafioso John Gotti. “He kept the neighborhood up,” said one. “He never would have put up with this.”) Humans generally prefer to be the ones shitting on others. Our hubris and our envy of birdkind has led us to develop our own methods of flight, spreading our species and our variety of waste throughout the world, and dropping far more devastating bombs. But birds outdo us all the same.

Mammals excrete their nitrogenous waste as urea in pee, but birds excrete it as uric acid in a sticky white paste. They release all their waste simultaneously, from a single hole, the cloaca. So the splatter that we know as bird poop is in fact a combination of feces (the green part) and pee (the white part). Healthy bird poop will, according to one veterinarian, “glisten with wetness,” and there may be “a little halo around the poop if it’s on an absorbent surface.”

Excremental habits vary. Turkeys and chickens eat their own nutrient-rich feces; other domesticated birds, if seen picking at dried poop with their beaks, are simply cleaning house. Birds do not have sweat glands, so certain species, such as turkey vultures and some storks, poop on their own legs to keep cool. The droppings function basically the way sweat does: they slowly evaporate in the heat, keeping the birds’ body temperatures low. Once the liquid evaporates, the chalky residue acts as sunblock for their legs and feet.

Humans have been known to smear themselves with bird shit from time to time as well, rubbing it on their scalps to promote hair growth or spreading it on their faces in the hopes of shiny, rejuvenated skin. (In Manhattan in recent years, one could get a $180 skin treatment that used sanitized nightingale droppings.) In the nineteenth century, people also ingested it: powdered seabird guano was bottled as a homeopathic remedy meant to be taken for a variety of ailments, such as violent headaches, itchy genitals, or hay fever. Its benefits remain unproven.

Perhaps the best fertilizer comes from seabird guano, and the best guano comes from the Chincha Islands, off the coast of Peru. Because seabirds are pescatarians, their shit is especially rich in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphate: high-grade plant food. And the coastal waters of Peru have historically been rich in phytoplankton, the tiny marine organisms that fish eat, making the guano there particularly nutritious. The uninhabited Chincha Islands are home to guanay cormorants, Peruvian boobies, and Peruvian pelicans, who gather in enormous flocks off the coast, coating rocks in their guano. In this arid region, there is little rain to wash the poop—and its nutrients—into the sea. In other words, the shit builds up: mountains of chalky guano atop the islands have, at times, risen to 150 feet.

Humankind has destroyed so many bird habitats, food sources, and populations that our avian neighbors’ mass pooping on our persons and property might well be seen as revenge. Bird poop stains marble and granite, adheres to paint, weakens concrete, eats away at steel. In the Seventies and Eighties in New York, when the city’s public spaces were left uncleaned and unrepaired, pigeon droppings eroded the steel beams of the Williamsburg Bridge, gnawed at the steel plates on the Manhattan Bridge “as effectively as a blowtorch,” and so thoroughly undermined a steel cable on the Brooklyn Bridge that it snapped and killed a man. Seabirds once destroyed the paint on an entire barge of Nissan cars waiting to dock at a European port. In 1991, an electrical short ignited pigeon droppings in the marquee of the Capitol Theater in Milford, Connecticut; moviegoers watching the firefighting film Backdraft thought the shouts of “fire” were a joke until they had to be evacuated.

Lured by such factors as the relative warmth of cities in winter and the abundance of food that humans discard, pigeons, starlings, crows, sparrows, and their many friends can be found roosting, preening, and loafing in the eaves of houses of worship, on the roofs of government buildings, in the attics of residences, in the rafters of transit stations, on the heads of statues, and in the porticoes of monuments. From their perches and nests at the Parthenon in Athens, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials in Washington, Lenin statues in Russia, the logo atop Sony headquarters in California, birds have streaked every type of monument to human achievement with their shit.

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November 2021

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