Outhouse 101: Filter out your feathered friends

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    By Russ and Tiña De Maris

    Poop-poop-e-doop, there’s an owl in the soup!

    Nope, it’s not a lost Betty Boop ditty, but a problem that bugged biologists in Boise back in 2009. And the soup the owl was in wasn’t just a pleasant, steaming cup of chicken and noodle. Picture, if you will, a note on the door of a “vault toilet” in a national forest requesting users to go elsewhere, as there was an owl in the outhouse. Not in the rafters, mind you, but downstairs, where nobody wants to go – but they do, actually, from above.

    USDA Forest Service photo by Joe Foust.

    Anyhow, the little owl was just sitting on the pile of you-know-what, looking, one supposes, as an owl might. I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to look philosophical if seated on – uh – sewage, but there you have it. The wildlife biologist called in fished the owl out of his uncomfortable residence and with help (and their last three gallons of water) washed down the unfortunate night-dweller, and turned him loose. One can only imagine the rather difficult time this feathered character received when returning home.


    But why was there an owl in the loo?

    It’s all about biology and the biffy. Seems like some birds, called “cavity nesters,” like to take time off in quiet, dark places. Vent pipes on top of vault toilets are about as attractive as the flashing lights and “boing boing” noises of casinos to gamblers. And just about as big a trap, one might add. A quick flight down a slick, no holds vent pipe leads right down to the dastardly dungeon of dung and degradation, and no easy escape.

    When the story of the unnamed owl reached the ears of the bird brains at the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming, it rang all sorts of alarm bells. Something had to be done to prevent feathered flyers from becoming victimized by their own desires. Enter the “Poo-Poo Project” – an apt acronym for “Port-o-Potty Owl Project.” Sound too clever for government work? You’re right – the Teton Raptor Center “advances raptor conservation through education, research, and rehabilitation,” and is a non-government organization.

    It’s probably a good thing the Poo-Poo Project landed in this group’s lap. One could only imagine how long it would have taken a government organization to figure out the problem. First, a thorough review of just how many birds get plucked from the poop every year, and what the financial impact would be. Then a long-term review of just how to put the problem on paper. Then put it out for bid. Award the bid, and wait for the first prototype.

    One can only imagine, a massive 50-KW generator installed to operate a specialized “bird scaring” system to first discourage the birds from coming anywhere near the privy. If that failed, an shrieking alarm system calls on a specialized rescue team that parachutes in from an overflying aircraft (and be sure to add a few dollars for construction of air bases for the teams). Anyway, you get the picture. A $2.9 million solution to the problem. Well, change the decimal point a few places if you will.

    The raptor restoration group scratched their collective heads, and with the help of a fabrication company, started selling bird-proof vent screens to land managers with privies for the princely sum of $29.95 each. The group began selling the simple mesh screens that attach to the top of the typical vault toilet vent pipe in 2013, and have reportedly sold more than 11,000 of the bird deflectors since.

    Land management companies aren’t the only ones buying the screens. Nonprofits and volunteer groups have jumped on the bandwagon, not only buying the protection products, but installing them as civic projects.

    Next time you visit a site with a vault toilet, take a look up above. If the comfort station is screenless, you might want to put in a request. After all, your suggestion just might keep a crow (or owl) out of the crap.

    ##RVT837

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    Renee Galligher
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    Renee Galligher

    This not only happens “in the wild”, but in town. Years ago, our toilet was clogged. We couldn’t figure out how because we’ve been careful. The plumber thought that maybe a tree root was blocking the pipe, but after checking that wasn’t the case, so he used a snake, a very impressive long one with a hook at the end. After much pushing, he hit a clog and then retracted the metal snake. What was on the end? A squirrel! Seems that they like to sit at the top of the toilet vent, but then are overcome by the sewer… Read more »

    Tommy Molnar
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    Tommy Molnar

    Seems to me an even simpler (and cheaper) way to address this would be to wrap the pipe with a piece of window screen and tightly attach a wire tie to it. Maybe a metal one that the sun wouldn’t dry out.