BIRD WATCH: Owls in toilets no laughing matter

HIKING AND TENT camping are not very tempting right now.

The fact that you might drown in your tent isn’t very far-fetched, considering the amount of water that has been raining down on us since forever.

I hope the weather gods conspire and try to prove me wrong by sending copious amounts of sun when this column hits the streets.

Just the same, there are those hardcore camper types who are making plans for spring and summer hikes.

Just like many of the birding trips I’ve enjoyed, half the fun of these outings is in the planning.

If hiking and/or camping is in your future, there is a recent news item I want to share with you.

Owls in toilets may sound funny, but it isn’t. That’s what Gary Bullock said when he sent me an article on the subject.

Outdoor toilets pose a problem for these nocturnal creatures. This comes about when the owl spots a hole in the structure.

Properly constructed outhouses have vent pipes installed in them.

In some areas, these are open holes that the owl can enter. It is looking for a nesting spot or a cavity to shelter in.

If the vent opening is screened over, it keeps the owl from entering and there is no problem. It also keeps out other birds that may be searching for a nesting place.

The danger to the birds is caused when there is no cover over the vent.

Falling into an outhouse is a pretty horrifying nightmare. It’s even worse because death is more often than not the result.

Bullock had a friend send him a newsletter article from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. As an avid and experienced birder, he is trying to get the information spread throughout the outdoor community.

Fortunately for the birds in Washington, screens are applied in many outdoor toilets throughout the state. However, there is always the chance that all outhouses, vault toilets and port-a-potties do not have screening or, if they do, it might need replacing.

There is a considerable amount of information on this subject posted on the Teton Raptor Center website,

The raptor center in Wilson, Wyo., has been a nationwide leader in bringing this problem to public attention. It has created a map showing which states are supporting its work. Washington is one of them.

Currently, there are 32 states where screens are being employed. How widely they are in use is the concern.

Getting the word out to the different state and federal agencies within each state is the goal of the raptor center. Anyone knowing personnel in the different agencies — i.e., Olympic National Forest, Washington Department of Fish and Game and parks like Olympic National Park — is encouraged to bring this problem to their attention.

“The owl in the toilet” sounds funny when it is first heard, but a visit to the raptor center website shows it to be anything but funny.

It is pathetic to see the photograph that was taken of a small boreal owl sitting in the bottom of an outdoor toilet. Anyone who has used port-a-potties, outhouses or vault toilets can easily imagine what such a photo looks like. The owl’s large dark eyes staring up at you while trapped in this condition are heart-breaking.

My thanks to Gary Bullock on the Olympic Peninsula for bringing this subject to the attention of many people, myself included.

When planning our outdoor activities for this summer, let’s keep these cavity-haunting birds in mind and make sure the vent screens are in place and working.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email:

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