Magazine article National Parks

Killer Commodes

Magazine article National Parks

Killer Commodes

Article excerpt

Joe Foust knew he was in the right place from the note taped to the door: "Do not use toilet - owl inside." He had seen some crazy things in his time as Cascade Ranger District wildlife biologist for the Boise National Forest, but a call about an owl in a campground toilet was a new one. Sure enough, once Foust opened the door and peered into the hole beneath the toilet seat, he saw the fiery eyes of a tiny boreal owl peering right back.

The bird was calm, so Foust was optimistic he could secure a quick - and clean - rescue. He took a net out of his truck, held his nose and opened the cleaning door at the back of the toilet. The bird remained still until the net got close, when it panicked and began flapping and jumping around in the chamber. "It was very very messy," said Foust. He finally netted the bird, washed it off as well as he could with water from his truck, released it back into the woods and returned to his office with a story to tell.

That story, and the accompanying photograph, made their way through a network of biologists in the West and eventually ended up in front of Roger Smith, co-founder of Teton Raptor Center, a nonprofit raptor education, research and rehabilitation facility in Wyoming. Smith had heard reports of owls being stuck in remote toilets before, and after seeing Foust's photo, he decided to do something about it. The Poo-Poo Project was born.

If you've ever visited public lands out West, you've probably used a vault toilet. Kind of gussied-up outhouses, vault toilets are permanent structures in areas without running water that store waste in a below-ground tank, or vault. The toilets are kept relatively fresh and odor-free thanks to vent pipes, which allow air to flow from the vault out through the ceiling.

The trouble is that to some birds, that vent pipe looks like a tree cavity, and tree cavities are places to nest, roost or cache food. They fly into the pipe and get trapped in the vault below, potentially meeting an unsavory end. Since the incident with the boreal owl at the Boise National Forest, staff at Teton Raptor Center have seen photos of other trapped owl species - small ones such as saw-whet and screech but also large owls like great horned, long-eared and barn. Other cavity-nesting birds have been found in vault toilets, including American kestrels, wood ducks and a variety of woodpeckers.

"No one knows for sure how many birds end up in vault toilets," said David Watson, the Poo-Poo Project coordinator (the name comes from port-o-potty owl project). "It's not the kind of thing many grad students want to spend their time researching. …

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