Birds & Birding

Owls in the Outhouse: Opening the Bathroom Door on a Foul Bird Issue

September 18, 2017

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Long-eared Owl rescued from vault toilet. Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some photos below are not for the weak-stomached.

Visiting a public lands outhouse is not always a pleasant experience for humans. It’s even less so for birds. Yes, birds. Here’s why there’s an owl in the toilet – and what we can do about it.

I’m shooting scenic footage in an unknown and rarely visited place in southern Idaho called Curlew National Grasslands. Even more unknown is the reason why a man is on the roof of one of the outhouses. Above the short sea of sage and sedge, I can see him shuffling around near a black pipe. That pipe vents the unmentionable fumes festering inside that small building no one wants to enter, but eventually everyone has to.

I unhinge my camera from tripod and make a run for the restroom. Chris Colt, Caribou-Targhee National Forest wildlife biologist, is at the base of the ladder leading up to field technician Drew Retherford. Retherford is on the vault toilet’s roof with a drill. The exchange goes something like this:

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“Putting a screen on the vent to keep birds out,” Colt says.

“Wait. What? Birds in the bathroom?” I say stunned.

“In the worst part of the bathroom and more often than you think.”

I’m grossed out and fascinated at the same time. I dig for facts while staring at a situation so disgusting I should look away, but I can’t help myself.

Chris Colt and Drew Retherford install a screen on an outhouse ventilation pipe. Photo courtesy of Kris Millgate / www.tightlinemedia.com

“That large diameter pipe is pretty enticing to certain species of wildlife like cavity nesting owls,” Colt says. “They see it as a tree cavity, like a tree with the top broken off that’s rotted inside. They climb down in there and maybe make a nest and then they can’t get out.”

And I don’t want to go in, but Joe Foust will. He’s the biologist who rescued a boreal owl in a Boise National Forest bathroom in 2010.

Boreal Owl trapped in a vault toilet. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service

“When I got there, there was a post-it note on door, ‘Owl in toilet. Don’t use. Go down the road for other toilet.’ I looked down there and sure enough, he was just sitting there looking up at me,” says Foust, Boise National Forest wildlife biologist. “It got a little messy when I tried to get him in the net. He didn’t fare well after that. Nor did I. He went ballistic and started bouncing up and down and just got soaked.”

So did Foust who took a few unpleasant pictures of the retrieval operation deep in the bowels of the campground bathroom. Those pictures ended up at the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming.

“There are very few studies of what’s down in a vault toilet. Stuff is just pumped out and it’s not a sexy thing to study, but it happens all over the country with all kinds of cavity nesting birds,” says David Watson, Teton Raptor Center Poo-Poo Project development director. “Cavity nesting birds are looking for that quiet, dark space. They don’t realize that pipe sticking up out of the toilet is a death trap for them.”

American Kestrel. Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management

Watson is proudly known as the ‘Poo-Poo King.’ He’s the director for the center’s Poo-Poo Project, that’s short for Port-O-Potty Owl Project. He’s also one of the creative minds behind the 12-inch Poo-Poo screen keeping birds out while also letting the stink out. The one-piece, steel screen, selling for $29.95, comes with four screws and installs in five minutes. Government agencies and non-profit organizations in all 50 states are installing them. Most of the vented vault toilets are on public land in remote places where the commute costs more than the construction project.

“The biggest difficulty is the time it takes to drive to your next toilet,” Colt says. “You get there, there’s maybe two toilets on a site, it takes 10 to 15 minutes and you’re done and moving on.”

The Teton Raptor Center sold its 10,000th Poo-Poo screen July 31 to, ironically, a concrete company in Montana that makes vault toilets. While 10,000 sounds like market saturation, that’s really just a small drop in the bucket when you consider the overwhelming number of outhouses nationwide not to mention other types of pipes.

Sawwhet Owl. Photo courtesy of Diane Diebold

“Chimneys, irrigation pipes, mining claims. There’s just a lot of open pipes and birds and pipes just don’t really work well together,” Watson says. “If we can do our small part to help with one aspect of it, we’re making a difference in the conservation world.”

Colt agrees. He’ll have every outhouse, 25, in the Westside Ranger District screened this year. I’ll verify that by looking up at the pipe instead of down into the hole the next time I visit the Curlew.

“I hate to see some owl go down there, get stuck and get killed, or worse be still alive and have to be fished out,” Colt says. “People can argue that it’s crazy, but if you can stop one owl from going down there, it was probably worth it.”

Boreal Owl trapped in a vault toilet. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service
Kris Millgate

Kris Millgate investigates outdoor and environment issues for TV and web with cross publication in newspapers and magazines. Millgate graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in broadcast journalism in 1997, then worked for one TV station or another around the country for a decade. In 2006, she started her production company Tight Line Media. More from Kris

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60 comments

  1. Kris– That’s some good, uh, stuff. Great uh, fowl story. Award winning material from the outhouse.

  2. This is reminiscent of the tremendous problem related to the open pipes used throughout the West for staking mining claims. Those pipes tend to trap smaller cavity nesting birds, of course. I applaud the efforts to raise awareness and remediate the problem by installing screening over the vent pipes for existing outhouses. I hope there will also be an immediate effort on the part of the manufacturers of these toilets to ensure that every unit made and sold in the future comes pre-fitted with bird-excluding screens.

  3. Completely new story for me! I had no idea! Makes perfect sense, though. So glad to be able to share this article on Facebook, because EVERY park needs to take immediate precautions for the safety of our wildlife, so THANK YOU VERY MUCH!

  4. This makes me want to buy some screens and donate them to our local parks and wildlife centers to put up. Is that a feasible idea?

    1. Hi Heather, There is an option to sponsor a screen if you click through to the Teton Raptor Center. I would recommend contacting your local parks to make sure they would install the screens before buying screens to donate to them directly. Thank you for getting involved!

  5. Wonderful story of people doing smelly work to help save wildlife.
    Thank you!

  6. Why didn’t they just install the screens when they first put up the toilet? Seems like a no-brainer to me! We put screens on the vent openings under our house to keep out all kinds of animals. They work.

  7. I was amazed at this article about those “out houses” or outdoor bathrooms. I will never use one again that I will thank the person that keeps it safe for the birds as well as the people using the facility. Great job, THANK YOU!

  8. Bless whomever joins in installing screen in outhouse venting pipes. I camped in the Grand Canyon where the outhouses didn’t have the venting pipe, and getting people to leave toilet seats up to vent the odor was a real problem. Can’t imagine what it would have been like to find an owl in the outdoor commode. Interesting, at the very least.

  9. How sad. Can you use a net on a pole to fish them out. We shouldn’t let one bird die if we can help it.
    Thank you all, who are doing this “dirty” job.

  10. God bless everyone who has every rescued one of these birds. This truely a wonderful and amazing thing to do for one of God’s creatures!

  11. I don’t donate to homeless or the over population of dogs or cats. But these stories really trigger my, I have to act buttons. We as people could be doing so much more to help the other species of animals that are affected by our behaviors.

  12. I am curious as to why Owls (any birds for that matter) are not repulsed by the outhouse contents. At the aromatic levels experienced in those outhouses I would think it is totally unlike anything else they experience elsewhere in the wild.

    1. I have always read that birds have incredible eyesight and hearing, but a poor sense of smell.

  13. As a former chimney sweep I have taken an owl out of a chimney – same problem. Also found dead birds several times. Screens would help there too.

  14. Such a shame! I’m glad people will are doing something to save these birds. I am a total animal lover, and I get sick to my stomach when I see things like this and the cruelty to animals

  15. Poor animals!

    Instead of raptors, I’d expect politicians to be swimming down there in their natural habit.

  16. Didn’t realize owls in toilets happen, but when you consider their nesting habits, it makes sense. Glad there is an easy fix.

  17. Wow…. I never thought that could happen! Poor, poor owls!!
    I wish that I was younger., I would definitely help!
    Congratulations! You are doing a GREAT job!!

  18. How sad for all the poor birds that have gotten trapped in those places. It’s nice that someone cares enough to do what he can to keep it from happening again.

  19. I’m so sorry for the innocent, unsuspecting owl. No creature should fall and be caught in a disgusting out house, OMGosh! I’m pleased to hear that more is being done to other outhouses, like protective coverings being installed so that any wild life won’t every experience something like this adorable owl. there are so few of them and most of us rarely get a glimpse of them in a natural habitat. Only in a zoo or wild life sanctuary.

  20. Even with a vent pipe, those places reek to high heaven! Maybe someone can come up with a screen combined with a solar-powered fan. Sailplane pilots have been putting them on glider trailers for years. Bless those brave guys for rescuing the birds!

  21. What can I do to be sure these screens are being added to the vault toilets in my region (southern Arizona)?

    1. Hi Maria, I recommend contacting the organizations that manage natural areas near you (for instance local branches of the NPS, USFWS, and state parks) and checking to see if they have heard of and implemented this solution. Thank you for volunteering to do more!

  22. i love animals and nature more then i can explain. They have been here on this mysterious land for ever and have as much right to be here as we humans do .
    Lets protect them anyway we can , remember they can,t defend themselves from a man with a gun.

  23. OMG I SO hope they got all those birds out of the house (“out-house”)… How odd they would fly down there. Perhaps looking for some means of escape? Anyway, now I will think of birds every single time I visit an outhouse (which is fairly often). Thanks for the story!

  24. I already wrote one comment, but here’s one more. I know the NPS and Forest Service are hard-pressed for cash. Seems like $29.95 is awfully expensive for a piece of wire screen. Couldn’t they just buy a roll of screen, cut the pieces to fit and then screw/bolt them in place? It would take the cost down to about $5 per outhouse vs. 30 bucks. Sheesh, if the opening was large enough for air to circulate around it, they could just put a big rock on the screen and it would probably hold the screen in place for years.
    Just a suggestion from a handygirl!

  25. I really hope you helped clean up the poor little owl, he looks so sad. The screens are a GREAT idear.

  26. So wonderful that we have caring wildlife personnel willing to carry out such an unpleasant task! I am grateful for their help in saving these beautiful birds!
    Thank you!
    Charlene Kuwatch

  27. I sincerely hope that ALL public toilets are inspected and made safe for any birds. Put yourself in a situation like the birds that cannot understand the danger. I plan to check at any park I visit to check this out and make the call if necessary.

  28. I plan to search each “outhouse” I visit in each “comfort zone to ask about the safety for the birds. Well worth the trouble to inquire.

  29. Don’t you think there should be a law that all outhouse pipes have to be screened? What a shame for these poor birds.

  30. We need one for our stove pipe as a merganser nested in the stove last year. Our caretaker wanted to just build a fire killing the adult and the babies. We let them be and they got out somehow.

  31. What a wonderful preventive program that I only hope will expand to state and other non-federal outhouses with large vent pipes. By the way, I have experienced other birds getting into cottages in Michigan and Ontario via fireplace chimneys, such as merganzers and flickers. Here in Florida, we had a Great Crested flycatcher show up, safely, at the bottom of our fireplace, fortunately not being used at that time. Not all birds end up surviving as few of them are able to find their way back up except swifts. A sad end for otherwise healthy birds.

  32. It seems like it’s a lot less expensive to install screens, than to rescue and rehabilitate birds. Not to mention, more humane. I hope there is also a program to provide natural and artificial nesting sites for these birds, that the can get into and out of safely.

  33. We had a duck fall down our fireplace chimney. Didn’t know it was there since it camped on the smoke shelf and we didn’t hear anything until a fire was started. By the time he came off the shelf the fire was going pretty well and we had flaming duck in the fireplace. Couldn’t let him out because he was on fire and by the time we got the fire out he was already gone. We put a screen on the chimney after that and now after remodeling, no longer even have a fireplace, but, we do have birds hit our picture window on occasion (so far, all have survived – although a little shaken) since you can see through to the other side of the house. Perhaps the company that makes the outhouses should think of screening all the stacks when they make the outhouse. They could buy them from the company that created them. That would keep everybody in business – and the birds a little safer. “Our” owl has his own tree cavity at the end of our driveway. Weird feeling as you see his eyes at night watching you drive out of the driveway.

  34. These little creatures are so
    adorable. Good work on the toilet brigade! Every owl is worth whatever the cost. The owls must be desperate to find a nesting place. Why don’t we put up nesting boxes
    for them in the vicinities of the toilets at parks and campgrounds where there are no natural nesting cavities?
    People must now Take Care of Wildlife in return for humans’
    confiscation of their habitats.
    Habitats for Wildlife paralleling Habitat for Humanity. We should be planting fruit and nut trees
    wherever we can to replace the well balanced diets they have had in the past.

  35. I never looked at the vents on any of the outhouses I have used over the years but this need to be changed. I do know that many, if not most, of the bathroom vents on our homes do not have anything covering the pipes and it is not unusual for birds to sit on them and pass out from methane gas & end up in one of the toilets in a residence usually dead.

  36. I have a basketball backboard on a pipe and know a baby bird got down there and I sure couldn’t get it out. I think it was a cactus wren. I could hear the scratching on the inside of the pipe.

  37. Thank you so much for this work! Poor dears!
    I hope it becomes a legal requirement to install the pipe screens on any new outhouses built in the future.

  38. Why did it take so long to come up with a solution to protect cavity nesting birds when a screen could have been installed when the outhouse was built onsite or installed?

  39. Why don’t they have a standard when making these out houses. Have the builder of these out houses be required to include a screen mesh on each vent? That would make a simple solution.
    Paul J Malchiodi

    San Diego CA. 92110

  40. A solution to this problem could be requiring the outhouse/public toilet makers to include the screen on the vent pipe during the manufacturing process. This would prevent further bird injuries and death and also save the time and effort of a person having to install the screen.

  41. For dirty stories, go to the Nature Conservancy’s website?? Who knew! I recall a dark and scary night when I was new to barred owls: this one lit on the roof over my bedroom and let loose his hoot and growl. I came out of bed thinking somebody had started World War III and looking for a weapon; if I’d had a gun would probably have drilled him straight through the ceiling. We’ve made our peace since; nowadays I actually enjoy their wee-hour conversations. I’d hate to think of any of their relatives suffering such a degrading fate. May the Great Pumpkin bless your work, and Happy Halloween to you all.

  42. Who would have EVER thunk! I probably won’t be able to use a park facility again without checking for a screen, and talking to maintenence if there isn’t one. I guess that’s a good thing. Thanks for the story!

  43. I’m a bird rehabilitator (primarily raptors), & I’d never heard of this particular bird accident. So glad screens are going in, & hope those reading about it, & using outdoor toilets, will keep an eye peeled for vent pipes that could use screens, & let the nearest ranger district know about the problem. There was no mention in the article about rehabilitation efforts for the unfortunate birds, so do hope some effort was made to locate a rehab facility willing to clean them up & ready them for re-release. They can’t just be hosed off & released, as they could become sick from the exposure to so much filth. They’d need some time to rest, be properly fed, & cared for before release. Anyone with a chimney should have an appropriate screen on it, especially wood stoves. Ours has a raised roof type screen that keeps rain out, with screen sides so the smoke can escape. We all need to think about the needs of the denizens of nature in our civilized world.