Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, November 19, 2021

Pileated Poop Shot!!

Laura and Russ at my favorite place

Back in the last millennium, when I was a junior high teacher, I used to take my students on bird walks. One morning when we were birding in my favorite Madison, Wisconsin, marsh, a Black Tern flying over pooped, making a direct hit on my hair and face. As is typical for a bird with a watery diet, the splat was a messy one.   

I was in my 20s and very self-conscious—had I been with an adult group, I probably would have been mortified. But I was in full teacher mode, trying hard to model being a mature, nature-loving adult, so even as I was wiping the mess up and cleaning the yucky drips off my eyelashes, I was explaining the difference between the mammalian and avian digestive and excretory systems— how the white parts of the poop were the bird’s urine while the dark parts were fecal matter. And on the spur of the moment, as if this would make the experience more fun and interesting than embarrassing, I told them that this made the Black Tern #1 on an important bird list I was starting up, my “Pooped-Upon List.”

I never committed this list to paper, but over the years, I’ve been pooped upon by some pretty cool birds—both species of waxwings, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a couple of warblers, and on one memorable occasion, a Pileated Woodpecker. I got pooped on all the time by birds I was rehabbing, but counting them would have been cheating. Oddly enough, I’ve so far never been pooped upon by either a gull or a pigeon. 

White Tern photo by Bruno Navez

Only once did I ever make an effort specifically to add a bird to my pooped-upon list, when my family went to Hawaii in 2000. One of my most yearned for lifers was the White Tern, and I decided that since my pooped-upon list started with a Black Tern, I should bring it full circle. So when I spotted a White Tern perched on a wire at Waikiki Beach, I parked myself strategically below and waited. Russ and the kids, never having been junior high teachers, found this mortifying and spent the next half hour getting ice cream and eating it as far from me as possible.  

When I started photographing birds, taking pictures one at a time, I’d end up with a lot of near-misses—a bird perfectly composed except for its eyes being closed in mid-blink, or its head all blurry because it turned just slightly as I snapped. That’s when I figured out what the “burst” function was all about—when a bird was holding still, I started taking at least 5 or 6 shots in rapid succession, having a much higher probability of at least one being good. That’s also how I took my pooped-upon list to the next level—and one requiring much less cleanup for me. I started getting photos of birds pooping. 

Over the years, I’ve gotten poop shots of Bald Eagle...

Bald Eagle

Atlantic Puffin... 

Another Atlantic Puffin poop shot!

Atlantic Puffin pooping!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird...

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Turkey Vulture...

Turkey Vulture pooping!

Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorant...

Brandt's Cormorant pooping!

Proper cormorant etiquette


Bobolink pooping!

Snail Kite... 

Snail Kite pooping!

Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owl... 

Great Gray Owl pooping!

Northern Hawk Owl

Purple Gallinule... 

Purple Gallinule pooping

Downy Woodpecker... 

Young Downy Woodpecker poop shot!

Common Yellowthroat, and more. 

Common Yellowthroat pooping!

I take so very many photos of Black-capped Chickadees and Blue Jays that you’d think I’d have plenty of poop shots, but I’ve lucked into only a single one for each, unless you count the fecal sacs adult chickadees carry out of the nest cavity.   

Black-capped Chickadee pooping!

Blue Jay poop shot!

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Perhaps my favorite poop shot of all was of a Cerulean Warbler at the Magee Marsh in Ohio during their wonderful birding festival, “The Biggest Week in American Birding.” 

Cerulean Warbler Poop Shot! (Perhaps my finest moment as a photographer!)

My birding friend Curt Rawn was standing next to me, his hand in the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place at the right time, so while I was getting the photo, he was actually getting pooped upon, and let me take photos of that. 

Cerulean Warbler Poop! On Curt Rawn's hand!

Cerulean Warbler Poop! On Curt Rawn's hand!

When I was pooped upon by a Pileated Woodpecker, I was standing right by the trunk examining some lichen on the bark when I felt the plop on my head. When I looked up, the bird gave a yell and flew off—I didn’t actually see it pooping. (I'm not sure I'd even known it was there until that moment.) And although I’ve taken thousands of Pileated photos, I’ve never caught one in the act until just this week. I had my home office window open to get photos of the Rufous Hummingbird and while it was gone, my favorite backyard Pileated flew in to a box elder with a perfect opening between trees for me to take some pictures. Suddenly, he lifted his tail away from the trunk and let go. And I have the photographic proof. 

Pileated Woodpecker
Here's how he was sitting...
Pileated Woodpecker
when suddenly he backed up and...

Pileated Woodpecker

My career has never been very lucrative—I earned more money teaching in Catholic schools in the 1970s than I have in most of the years since—but you can’t measure wealth in mere money. Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett: I bet not one of them has ever gotten a photo of a Pileated Woodpecker pooping. And that makes me feeling pretty darned rich.  

Pileated Woodpecker tongue!