Much Ado ‘bout Bird Poo

birdpoop

People have long exploited birds, predominantly for their feathers, meat, and eggs. Among the least likely item on such lists includes something the average person today would consider to have little or no practical purpose—poop.

Yet, for centuries human ingenuity has discovered incredible ways to utilize this waste product, ranging from ingredients for generating munitions to creating skin care products. Here’s the scoop on just a few items, some still in use today.

The Obvious One—Fertilizer, of Course

Anyone who has parked his or her car near some trees only to return hours later and find the vehicle splattered with white, pasty dung has experienced the typical revulsion towards bird poop. The scorn of municipalities that’s frequently directed towards pigeons is due in large part to their unsightly feces on sidewalks and building walls (1). Similarly, the massive amounts of droppings left behind around walkways, parks, and statues by the common starling, a bird that roosts in large numbers, has in turn resulted in animosity toward the migrating creatures (2). In suburbia, larger birds are problematic. To maintain areas clear for human activity, officials now drive flocks of Canada geese away from public lakes, golf courses, and waterways (3). With this almost war-on-birds mentality, you’d think that for many folks, birds are more often than not a nuisance.

But not all poop is reviled (nor the birds that produce it). In some areas of the world, bird feces—known as guano—once fueled a lucrative fertilizer industry. The extensive layers of droppings left by Guanay cormorants, brown pelicans, Peruvian boobies, and other seabirds along Peru’s coast (4) have long been recognized by the native people there as a highly valued farming resource (5, 6). By the mid-19th century, outsiders had discovered that such areas in the Central Pacific and the Caribbean harbored what was colloquially called “white gold”, to be claimed, mined, and exported (7). The fertilizer craze of this period—growing populations require more food—resulted in naval skirmishes, piracy, forced slave labor, and island land-grabs (8). Since that time exploitative processes, from guano extraction to overfishing, have devastated this region’s bird populations (9, 10). The mountains of bird feces once deposited in these spots are no more.

An Explosive Combination

Doves are revered as symbols of peace; so, one may be surprised to learn that their droppings were once used by the British monarchy as a munitions ingredient (11, 12). Long before the marvels of modern chemistry, people relied instead on natural collections of potassium nitrate or saltpeter, a compound necessary for making gunpowder. Although not readily abundant, potassium nitrate turns out to be prevalent in… you guessed it… dried pigeon and dove feces. And since the citizenry’s dovecots were ideal sources for such dung, the British government laid claim to all saltpeter in those structures, making laws permitting agents of the crown to scrape and dig up the material (13). Bird droppings, thus, played an important, if oft forgotten, role in British history.

“No Fun” Beautifying Facials

Truth indeed is stranger than fiction, as yet another case clearly demonstrates. The bush warbler “nightingales” (uguisu) in Japan are known for their song, but the birds have quite a reputation, too, for what’s dispatched from their other end. Due to its moisturizing and restorative effects, their poop (uguisu no fun) has been used for centuries in that country as a skincare product. In particular, the droppings were applied to remove the white make-up worn by courtesans (geishas) and Kabuki actors. Such face paint traditionally contained lead and zinc, which were harsh on the skin, and the uguisu no fun’s urea and guanine helped combat the make-up’s damaging effects (14). Today, some spas in the United States charge more than $150 for a “Geisha facial”, and apparently, many celebrities are smitten with the treatments (15, 16, 17). Who knew that people would actually pay that kind of money to have sanitized bird poop applied to their face? I guess, as Alix Strauss of The New York Times says, “When it comes to fighting aging, many of us will try anything” (18).

A “Crappy”—but Popular—Form of Fundraising

And when it comes to the introduction of any new form of entertainment or fundraising, consider that folks will also line up to try a novel spin-off on an old game, especially if it involves bird feces—hence, the growing popularity of chicken-poop bingo. The rules are similar to the original game but in this version, of course, there are chickens and excrement. As the birds peck for food along a numbered grid, their droppings randomly fall, indicating the next spot to be called on players’ boards. The Wall Street Journal’s Stu Woo notes, “At least a few decades old, the chicken antics have become a popular staple at fairs, festivals and fundraisers in small-town America, and beyond.” (19) To the chagrin of animal rights activists, the game has made its way to New Orleans; Austin, Texas; Columbia, Illinois (20); Louisville, Kentucky (21); Durham, North Carolina (22); and other cities throughout the U.S.

Overall, who knew bird poop could serve so many functions? After researching this topic, I know I’ll never look at the unsightly mess on my car the same way again!

Sources:

  1. Blechman, A.D. Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird. New York: Grove Press, 2006. pp. 1-2.
  2. Squires, N. “Rome’s eternal problem – starling droppings”, 11/27/2008. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/wildlife/3531770/Romes-eternal-problem-starling-droppings.html.
  3. Saslow, L. “Canada Geese: It’s Love and Hate”, 7/14/2002. The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/14/nyregion/canada-geese-it-s-love-and-hate.html.
  4. Wilsdon, C. Smithsonian Q & A: Birds. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006. pp. 200-201.
  5. Vergano, D. “Bird Droppings Led to U.S. Possession of Newly Protected Pacific Islands”, 9/26/2014. National Geographic: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/09/140926-pacific-island-guano-national-monument-history/.
  6. Hager, T. The Alchemy of Air. New York: Broadway Books, Random House, Inc. 2008. p. 29.
  7. Vergano, D.
  8. Hager, T. pp. 25-36.
  9. Wilsdon, C. pp. 200-201.
  10. Vergano, D.
  11. Blechman, A.D. pp. 1-2.
  12. Cressy, D. Saltpeter: The Mother of Gunpowder. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. p. 132.
  13. Cressy, D. p. 132.
  14. Freeman, S. “Geisha Facials”, 1/11/2010. HowStuffWorks: http://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/beauty/skin-treatments/geisha-facial.htm.
  15. Freeman, S.
  16. Connell, C. “The most cringe inducing facial ever: The good news – it beats Botox. The bad news – it’s made from birds’ mess”, 5/28/2014: DailyMail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2641957/The-cringe-inducing-facial-The-good-news-beats-Botox-The-bad-news-birds-mess.html.
  17. Strauss, A. “Skin Deep: Fertilizer for the Face”, 7/4/2012. The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/05/fashion/fertilizer-for-the-face-beauty-industry-turns-to-animal-secretions-and-droppings-for-ingredients.html?_r=0.
  18. Strauss, A.
  19. Woo, S. “Bingo! Henny the Hen Just Made Her ‘Mark’ on No. 16”, 10/22/2012. The Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390443749204578048740198716834.
  20. Woo, S.
  21. Havens, S. “Lady cluck: Chicken poo bingo featured at this weekend’s Flea Off Market”, 11/6/2014. Insider, Louisville: http://insiderlouisville.com/uncategorized/chicken-shit-bingo/.
  22. Blythe, A. “Durham Farmers’ Market hosts chicken bingo fundraiser”, 12/20/2014. News & Observer: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/12/20/4419181_chickens-leave-their-mark-on-bingo.html?rh=1.

Cartoon Quackers and Other Wacky Fowl

quackers_JML

Research on global humor indicates one critter has a knack for “quacking” folks up. This would come of little surprise, though, to the animators responsible for Donald and Daffy and other zany bird cartoon characters.

British Psychologist Richard Wiseman, whose studies have revealed the hilarious appeal of the small, waddling waterfowl, says that “if you are going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck” (1). Maybe folks are humored by the way it walks or sounds. Illustrators, of course, know that all sorts of birds—not just ducks—have the potential to bring levity to their comics and cartoons. Hence, we have Woody Woodpecker, Chilly Willy (a penguin), Buzz Buzzard, and Homer Pigeon (all from Walter Lantz Productions); as well as Heckle and Jeckle (a couple of mischievous magpies), Gandy Goose, and—another cartoon duck—Dinky Duck (all from Terrytoons).

The Ducks Have It

Donald and Daffy came onto the scene during the 1930s, but neither was the first cartoon bird on film. For example, a chicken who tries to frame Felix the Cat appeared in the 1928 animated short The Oily Bird (2). However, introduced a few years later in the 1934 Disney classic The Wise Little Hen, Donald made the bigger splash, quickly becoming the foremost major animated avian personality to appeal widely to audiences (3). And Daffy came along three years later in Warner Brothers’ Porky’s Duck Hunt (4). Both characters, the white feathered Donald with his naval uniform sans trousers and the oft unattired black drake Daffy, are now household names throughout the world.

“Being a duck, he likes water,” Walt Disney once explained regarding Donald’s choice of apparel. “Sailors and water go together” (5). By 1942, this irascible, half-clothed waterfowl had garnered Disney’s production studio an Oscar for the animated anti-Nazi propaganda short film Der Fuehrer’s Face (6). (For a detailed and intriguing account of “Donald Duck and Wartime Propaganda”, please check out the link to ArtLark’s blog article.) Of course today, Daisy Duck, Scrooge McDuck, Darkwing Duck, Huey, Dewey, Louie, and a waddling of other family members and friends join Donald, living in the fictional Duckburg. Furthermore, Disney has given flight to a few more fowl since the 1930s, characters such as Owl from Winnie the Pooh, Orville and Wilbur (sibling albatrosses) of The Rescuers movies, and Iago (a parrot) from the Aladdin franchise.

Meanwhile, Daffy and his pals are doing quite well. Today he rivals Bugs Bunny in popularity among the stable of cartoon characters at Warner Brothers. There he also joins other funny-bird personalities, such as Road Runner, Tweety Bird (a canary), Foghorn Leghorn (a rooster), and Henery the Chicken Hawk. I must admit that I have fond memories of watching all these characters on Saturday morning TV as a young child, especially the many escapades involving Daffy and Foghorn.

Still Drawing Applause

Over the years, cartoonists have brought all sorts of feathered entertainers to life. Decades ago, animated short films were common on the big screen, such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer classics like Jerky Turkey and King-Size Canary. Pixar put its own stamp on this format in 2000 with the studio’s film For the Birds. However, most high-profile animated cinema today consists of feature-length flicks. Recent notable examples include the Penguins of Madagascar; the Antarctic adventures of penguins, skuas, and a puffin in the Happy Feet films; and an assortment of feathered personalities, such as macaws, a toucan, and a cardinal, in the Rio movies.

Not limited to just the motion picture business, birds are also featured in comic books and comic strips. The most iconic of these is Woodstock of Peanuts, a mainstay of newspaper comic sections. While clearly not as famous as Snoopy’s sidekick, Marvel Comics’ Howard the Duck remains a cult favorite in his respective print medium. These are just the biggest names; there are many more. You’ll even find in today’s newspapers several polarizing examples, among them the title character of Mallard Fillmore, a politically conservative comic strip, and Sparky the Wonder Penguin of the left-leaning This Modern World (7).

By the way, comics that delve into political and social issues are nothing new. Pogo, Bloom County, Shoe, and many others, entered that territory long ago. One of the main figures in the swampland setting of Pogo, of course, was an owl (8). Opus the penguin graduated from Bloom County to land a couple of comic-strip sequels (9). Out of these strips, only Shoe still runs in syndication today. It features a cast of avian-anthropomorphized characters, most notably a newspaper-industry osprey named “Cosmo”.

The End                                                                                                                        

As you can see, all sorts of birds have animated cartoon history. Waddling ducks quacking about are wildly funny. But penguins, chickens, and canaries are more than capable of eliciting their share of chuckles. Don’t expect cartoon birds to flock south anytime soon.

Meanwhile, as the curtains close here briefly, please stay safe and have fun. In other words, that’s all folks—‘til two weeks from now. For those of you in the U.S., have a wonderful upcoming Memorial Day!

Sources:

  1. Wiseman, R. “Fun Facts from LaughLab”, RichardWiseman.com: http://www.richardwiseman.com/LaughLab/Documents/funFacts.html.
  2. Crafton, D.C. Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. pp. 329, 331.
  3. Gabler, N. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. p. 201.
  4. Hunter, M. “What Makes Daffy Duck? A History of Daffy Duck”, TooLooney: http://toolooney.goldenagecartoons.com/daffy.htm.
  5. Gabler, N. p. 201.
  6. Online Awards Database, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: http://www.oscars.org.
  7. Booker, M.K. (Editor). Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas. Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC., 2014. pp. 1181-1182.
  8. Booker, M.K. pp. 719-721.
  9. Booker, M.K. pp. xxx (introduction), 1501.

Fowled Up: Funny and Offbeat Names for Birds

catbird

Many of our chosen monikers for birds are nothing short of odd. At times, they’re outright humorous. Even several scientific terms are not immune to chuckles, especially for folks with a limited acquaintance of Latin. Then there are those familiar bird nicknames that have evolved into coarse slang. Indeed, at times our winged neighbors and human language have tangoed to form quite an intriguing pair.

Rolling off the Tongue

Although many of the names we have for birds make sense, the words themselves often seem strange at first to the ear, names such as bobwhites, chickadees, killdeers, kittawakes, rufous-sided towhees, whippoorwills, and willets, among a plethora of others. However, the source for these monikers could not be any more natural. All of these birds are identified by the calls that they produce, as if they were simply introducing themselves by saying, “My name is…so-and-so”.

This my-name-is-approach holds true as well for the coot and cuckoo. Both of these birds are dubbed for their peculiar cries. However, in their cases, their distinctive call-based names interestingly hold other connotations. Due to the offbeat sounds they generate, these birds have been associated respectively with idiocy and madness (1, 2). A “mad old coot” remains a common pejorative for describing a silly or stupid elderly man (3). And advertising, of course, has taken up the crazy cuckoo idea. Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, the cartoon personality on the Cocoa Puffs cereal box, famously goes loco in commercials, dramatically giving in at last to his wild cravings for the cereal. Oh, Sonny!

More Etymological Oddities

As discussed in last week’s post, several birds were named for the way they look rather than how they sound. Relying on this strategy, European explorers and naturalists often adopted Old World bird names for those they encountered in the Americas. A few birds, though, were named for affinities they share with other things. For instance, the high-ranking officials of the Catholic Church provided inspiration for the northern cardinal’s moniker, as the bird’s color and crest were evocative of the cloaks and galeri already worn by those clerics (4, 5).

In several circumstances, other animals played roles in the labels bestowed upon our feathered friends. The catbird, for example, is named for the manner in which its call is thought to resemble that of a small, young feline (6, 7); the cowbird for frequently feeding off the insects near grazing cattle (8); and the anhinga or “snakebird” for the way its long S-like neck, when swimming for food, extends out of a lake or marsh, bobbing forward (9).

Mousebirds also exist, but strangely enough they are not named after the rodent—nor are they pursued as prey by catbirds! Diana Wells, the author of 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names, explains that “mouse” in this case comes from mase, the old Germanic, Anglo-Saxon word for “small bird” (10, 11). As for dogbirds or “dirds”, they only exist online such as on websites like sadanduseless.com!

Bird Names Gone Wild

Not only are some common names unusual, quite a few of the scientific ones are seemingly peculiar as well, at least initially to someone like myself who doesn’t know Latin well. For example, Circus cyaneus is not related at all to traveling, big-top, blue-tent amusement; this is the name for the marsh hawk. Sturnus vulgaris has nothing to do with stern warnings about crude, profane language; it’s the formal term for a starling. And while Turdus maximus sounds bad, like some archaic form of schoolboy bathroom humor, that term, too, is rather innocent—just the scientific name for the Tibetan blackbird.

But now that we’re on the subject of monikers-that-appear-to-be-offensive-but-aren’t, let’s not overlook several bird names that lend themselves erroneously to sexual innuendo. A couple obvious ones are well-known for their share of adolescent chortles: tits and boobies. As William Young notes in his The Fascination of Birds: From the Albatross to the Yellowthroat, neither of these terms has anything whatsoever to do with the female human anatomy. Titr, from which the former bird’s name derives, is simply Icelandic for “small” (12). Meanwhile, the other birds are known as “boobies” due to how explorers deemed the creatures’ appearance and behavior as comical (13). Incidentally, the celebrated ornithologist and artist John James Audubon thought the name more fitting for folks who belittled these or any other birds as stupid (14).

Nowhere to Go but up?               

Before ending this post, I’d be remiss to at least not touch upon a couple bird nicknames that actually have evolved (or perhaps, more aptly, digressed) into sexualized expressions. For example, here in the U.S., the nickname for owls has become slang for the female breasts. This appropriation is probably due to the prominence of the creatures’ eyes; however, the age-old connection between these birds and witchcraft, as a mysterious feminine power, may play an important secondary role.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the owl euphemism is relatively recent—late 20th century—as opposed to another common one, the name for a rooster that’s synonymous with a part of the male human reproductive system. The website notes the latter word’s contextualized usage as far back as the early 17th century (15), as does another source, tracing it to a pun used in Shakespeare’s play The Life of King Henry the Fifth (2.1.53) (16).

The strange ways in which we identify with birds, right? At this point, what more’s to be said? With these last few looks into the offbeat connections between linguistics and our winged neighbors, this post may have delved as low as decency permits. Next week, let’s take flight from the gutter!

Sources:

  1. Wells, D. 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2001. pp. 33, 48.
  2. Young, W. The Fascination of Birds: From the Albatross to the Yellowthroat. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2014. pp. 54, 68-71.
  3. Farmer, J.S. Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: C to Fizzle. Volume 2. London: Harrison and Sons, 1891. p. 178.
  4. Wells, D. pp. 25-26.
  5. Young, W. p. 34.
  6. Wells, D. p. 148.
  7. Young, W. pp. 39-40.
  8. Wells, D. pp. 37-38.
  9. Wells, D. pp. 229-230.
  10. Wells, D. p. 253.
  11. Young, W. p. 44.
  12. Young, W. p. 42.
  13. Young, W. p. 42.
  14. Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. pp. 367-368.
  15. Harper, D. Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com.
  16. Farmer, J.S. p. 135.