Anyone who has visited public lands in the west will be familiar with the boxy brown vault toilets stationed at trailheads and parking lots. These facilities provide welcome relief for trail-users and travelers while reducing the impact of human waste on the environment, but they have a hidden downside for birds.
The toilet’s ventilation pipe, which extends from the roof of the building like a chimney, can be a death trap for curious birds. Many species, including several types of owls, Kestrels, Flickers and bluebirds, nest in cavities. Typically, these are natural cavities, like holes in dead cottonwoods. But natural cavities are a limited and valuable resource, and cavity nesting birds will check out any hole, even man-made ones, that might make a suitable nest site.
A vault toilet ventilation pipe is one such cavity. When birds fly into the pipe, they can become trapped in the vault of the toilet with the human waste. Usually these trapped birds die due to stress and starvation. If someone happens to see them in the vault, and the facility’s manager is able to get them out, the birds can be cleaned, rehabilitated and released.
Wildlife rehabilitators at the Teton Raptor Center, located in Wilson, Wyoming, had
treated many birds rescued from toilets, and decided that prevention was the best medicine. They started the “Poo-Poo Project” in 2010 to find a practical solution to the problem. After trial and error, they designed a screen to fit over the opening of the ventilation pipe and found a company in Idaho Falls to manufacture them at a cost of about $30.00 per screen. The Poo-Poo Project now raises money to purchase screens and coordinate with local, state and federal land agencies to get them installed. As of 2017, about 5,000 “Poo-Poo Screens” have been installed in 29 states.
Grand Junction resident Laura Johnston led the Poo-Poo Project charge locally. Johnston works as a park ranger in Grand Teton National Park during the summer, which is where she first learned of the project. “I felt like for five months of my life, this concept of stewardship was front and center and then I come home and it just goes away. And I thought I need to have something that keeps this idea of stewardship going for me personally.”
When she returned to Grand Junction at the end of the summer in 2015, Johnston applied for and received a Rich Levad Research Grant from the Grand Valley Audubon Society to purchase “Poo-Poo Screens.” With this grant and donations from individuals, Johnston raised about $3,000 and purchased screens for vault toilets in the Grand Valley. She coordinated with the Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the
Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies to get the screens installed. According to Johnston, all of these agencies were happy to install the screens on their vault toilets. “So far, we have installed 166 screens and the Grand Valley is done basically,” says Johnston.
Now Johnston hopes to get screens installed on all the public vault toilets in Colorado. She continues to volunteer her time to raise money to purchase the screens, and get them delivered and installed where needed. Thankfully, newer models of vault toilets on the market come with ventilation pipe screens. But there remain many older facilities that are yet to be screened. Thanks to the hard work of Johnston and the folks at the Teton Raptor Center, the toilets that provide much needed relief at the end of a long hike won’t lead to a very unpleasant end for local birds.
If you’d like to help Johnston purchase Poo-Poo Screens for facilities in Colorado, you donate to her effort via the Grand Valley Audubon Society. They accept donations for her Poo-Poo Project work on their website, audubongv.org or you can mail a check to the Grand Valley Audubon Society, P.O. Box 1211, Grand Junction, CO, 81502. Please be sure to write “for Poo-Poo Project” on the check. If you’d like to get in touch with Johnston about the Poo-Poo Project, you can contact her via the Grand Valley Audubon Society at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vault toilet ventilation pipes are not the only man-made cavities that can be hazardous for birds. Virtually any vertical open pipe can trap a curious bird. Once they fly in, tight confines prevent them from opening their wings, and unlike in natural cavities, the slick surface inside pipes prevents birds from getting a foothold to climb up and out. One survey of over 800 open pipes used as mining claim stakes in Nevada found the carcasses of almost 900 birds. A single defunct irrigation pipe in California contained the bodies of 200 birds. You can prevent unnecessary bird deaths on your property by capping or covering vertical open pipes. The cap or screen need not be expensive, as long as it is not easily dislodged by wind or other disturbance.
(This article was originally published in the March 25, 2017 issue of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, as Life-saving Screen)