While walking by the National Eagle Center classroom the other day I overheard two older ladies discussing where they were going to sit for the educational and eagle feeding program. The one was adamant that they sit in the front row so they could see everything so much more closely, but the other lady shook her head and said something that I just had to chuckle at. She said that she had been watching the bald eagle web cam one day and that while watching she saw one of the birds stand up in the middle of the nest, cock it’s tail straight up and then it SHOT out it’s poop! That poop must have been projected like twelve feet, so there is no way that I am sitting in a front row where they will be bringing in one of those eagle s into the classroom!!!
It is true! Eagles and many species of raptors are able to shoot their poop, maybe not 12 feet as the lady suggested, but I have firsthand seen it shot (falconers use the word “slice” and what is sliced, they call a mute) over six feet. I suppose that I should not have used the word poop in this blog writing, with a wide variety of people reading this (possibly) that I should have instead said, poop and pee! We all must realize that when a bird poops it also pees. I remember that not too long ago there was a very popular kid’s book that was titled “Everyone Poops”, but for little birdies the correct tittle of their book would have to be “Everyone Poops and Pees at the Same Time”.
You see we mammals have a spot or opening for our poop (fecal material) and a spot for our pee (urine), but birds (and some other creatures, try to think who they may be) have just one opening called the cloaca. You may hear the term vent used occasionally, but it is basically the spot where the concentrated uric acid and the fecal material leave the body as waste at the same time. You may have occasionally heard the term “whitewash” being used and this refers to the rather viscous white fluid that makes up the urine portion of the mute and the dark stuff in the middle is the fecal material. Birds excrete far less urine than do mammals which helps to conserve water so what is released is concentrated uric acid and when it dries it forms a chalky white substance that we tend to see on our cars.
Yeah, why is it that the birds tend to poop and pee on our cars? When many species of birds such as an American Robin brings back food to the nest, they will first distribute the food that they brought with them to their young, they will then take their beaks and put it near the babies vent, the nestling will then excrete a fecal sac which the parent bird will gently place in their beak and fly away with it. They will then drop it on any one of the following things: your car, bird bath, bald man’s head, driveway or sidewalk!! Before we talk about why they choose those locations when there are lots of other good places to drop those bombs, we need to first understand what a fecal sac is. A fecal sac is a gelatinous sac filled with the poop and pee; it is kind of like a water balloon, but not filled with water. So why do they choose those locations? Is it because they can? The main reason that the bird wants to remove the fecal sac from the nest and the nest area is so that it does not build up and let predators know that there are vulnerable young near by to snack on. Ideally the parent bird wants to drop the fecal sac into water because the water will literally “flush” it away and it will not then build up in one location near the nest. Well most all those things look shimmery and look like water (remember the bald mans head) so appear to be the aquatic place to drop the bomb. Most people can see the connection with the shimmery thing like the car but what about the sidewalk, it does not necessarily shimmer in the sun. To understand, we have to think like a bird and imagine ourselves flying over a sidewalk, a sidewalk that has grass or trees on either side. To the bird about to drop the bomb, this looks like a stream coursing through the forest. It may not be a stream, but to the bird that may be in a hurry to get the bomb out of its mouth it is a good enough spot. We all may have had an experience when we had something in our mouth that we did not want in there and were very quick to disperse that from our mouths, I can only imagine that it would not be very great to have a fecal sac in your mouth, even if it did come from your own child! Now that you all know of this, you now understand why that lady did not want to sit in the front row when they were going into the education room at the National Eagle Center, and you now know where you will not sit when you visit the National Eagle Center! Seriously though, the shooting of the mute is primarily done at the nest site, so please do not let what you now know prevent you from visiting the National Eagle Center, your safe, but if you still don’t trust me, just bring your raincoat.
We also should note that the cloaca is also where contact is made between the male and female for the transfer of sperm. This is what scientists call a cloacal kiss(it is essentially like two human lips coming together as most male birds do not have a developed penis for insertion), and it is indeed a quick kiss and meeting of the two bird’s cloacas. When this happens with a raptor like an eagle the male must clench his fists together before landing on the females back for the cloacal kiss otherwise he will hurt the female. After fertilization has taken place, the egg will also pass through the vent as well.
Scott A. Mehus
Education and Eagle Research Director
NATIONAL EAGLE CENTER