Thursday, April 5, 2007

Question of the day: Do birds fart?

Ah--an intelligent kid's question has worked its way into BirdChat channels. Since I worked on nighthawk digestion during my ill-fated Ph.D. research (the world already has one-too-many Dr. Laura's anyway, right?) I figured I better tackle this question. So I plunged in, noting that nighthawks have extremely odoriferous droppings because mixed with the fecal matter and urates are also caecal contents, and the caeca are filled with anaerobic bacteria that, as far as I've been able to determine, break down some of the chitin in their insect diet. While studying them, I spent many, many hours in extremely close quarters with nighthawks, paying an inordinate amount of attention to sounds and smells, and never once detected anything resembling a fart.

That said, mammalian intestines are very long, digestion slow, and fecal contents can remain in the intestines for quite a while. Gases erupting from any point in mammalian intestines can build up before they reach the end, and are going to pass through a bunch of malodorous stuff along the way, picking up additional odors. Birds get rid of any gases as quickly as they do the other material in their guts, and so there really isn't time for huge buildups of the kind that 10-year-old children (of both sexes, in my experience both as a former kid and as a former teacher) delight in and squeamish, oh-so-proper adults (again, of both sexes) recoil from.

Then someone wondered what it is in human nature that is attracted to such a question. To which I simply had to jump in again. What is it that attracts us to any question? We humans have five senses, and although our sense of smell isn't as keen as that of a golden retriever, anyone who's spent any time in proximity to a golden retriever in the evening (well, at least near MY dear, departed golden retriever Bunter), cannot help but have noticed the phenomenon we call farting. We upright humans may not produce quite as powerful a smell, but our own farts do at least occasionally make up for in sound production what they lack (only marginally) in odoriferousness. So only a deaf person who also lacked an ability to detect odors could possibly have gone through life never experiencing the phenomenon of farting, and only a human without an operational mind could possibly have gone through life never once wondering what the heck farts are all about.

I suspect my golden retriever didn't think much about the phenomenon, but she also didn't care who Ernie Banks was, or wonder if he rejoiced, in his retirement, at having played for the Cubs long enough (just barely) to have been able to play against a flock of Blue Jays. My golden retriever probably never wondered about the stars in the sky or whether there is a God or why cats bury their feces and dogs don't or why manufacturers don't make a 20x fixed-focus eyepiece for digiscoping. She just knew that anytime anyone acted upset about anything, it was somehow her fault, so when anyone said "EWWWWWWWW!" in the evening, she guiltily slunk over and nestled her head in their lap to make them feel better. Which of course was counterproductive, but she never thought about that, either. We mammals pretty much all fart, and presumably most of the humans among us think, and though few among us will ever produce a fart that approaches the sheer smelliness of a golden retriever's, few of us will ever be as kind as one, either.

It's when we recoil from asking natural questions that we are least human and most like animals.

But the short answer is an almost definite no, birds do not fart. Farts are, by definition, noticeable eruptions of significant volumes of intestinal gas. Avian intestines are short and evacuate wastes frequently. Any gases produced in digestion leak out as fast as they're produced, so there isn't the opportunity for build-up that leads to those explosive releases we cheerfully or disgustedly call farts.

18 comments:

  1. It's when we recoil from asking natural questions that we are least human and most like animals.

    Love that.

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  2. I know many Golden Retrievers that are more human than some humans I know.

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  3. So I was thinking about your blog post while I, um, did some business, and I thought, what about Andean condors and those other big vulture-types? You contend that bird's farts don't smell because their digestive systems are so small, but there are some big birds.

    The thing with condors, to speculate on an answer to own question, is that they would likely be smelly to begin with because of their diets, so it wouldn't make a difference whether they released excessive gas or not.

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  4. I didn't say that gases coming from avian digestive tracts aren't smelly--just that they come out a little at a time rather than in large, explosive bursts. ANYTHING coming from either end of a vulture or condor's digestive tract is going to be pretty darned smelly!

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  5. I was going to comment about my husband's farts, but the Condor question made me think of Turkey Vultures. My kids and I were at the Raptor Center's open house this weekend, and one of the volunteers told us that vultures poop on their legs in part to cool them off.

    Do you know why vultures, especially, would need to cool their legs off? I can see pooping on their legs to kill icky foreign bacteria from carcasses. I can see pooping wherever because they don't return to the same nest from year to year. But I don't know why vultures might have a 'hot leg' problem that wasn't fundamentally related to the need to kill icky foreign bacteria from carcasses.

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  6. Different birds have different strategies for cooling themselves. Vultures do, indeed, urinate on their legs for cooling their bodies down. But the strategy may be one of those things that involve more than one variable. Because as you note, they do get a lot of bacteria on their legs and feet when sitting on a putrescent carcass. The acidity of their droppings may help kill some of that bacteria even as it lowers their body temperature.

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  7. I really enjoyed this, Laura! Although I giggled sometimes throughout, I appreciate your curiosity, i.e. "our curiosity". And in the end, I learned something.

    But I must offer this info: there is no other dog breed that can compete with the Boston Terrier fart in sound and smell. I have two of these dogs and they can clear a room within seconds :o)

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  8. Laura,

    Thanks for a good laugh, seasoned with some introspection. Now who would have thought "fart" and "introspection" could co-exist? Bravo to you!

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  9. I was once following a kiwi (Apteryx australis) along a forest trail on Stewart Island, New Zealand, when it paused, made a farting sound, then resumed walking. I had no idea any species of bird could fart so wondered if my ears were playing tricks. But my companion, a twitcher from London, confirmed what I had heard, whispering, "wow, it farted". Kiwi are among the most mammal-like of birds (see http://www.savethekiwi.org.nz/AboutTheBird/WeirdAndWonderful/HonoraryMammal.htm) so maybe they are a unique case of farting birds, though I wonder whether other ratites fart too.

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  10. I am almost certain that birds fart. Today I had the fortune of watching an African grey parrot at a pet store turn its rear end towards a friend of mine. My friend remarked "ooh, he's mooning me!"

    The bird figured it could do better, so it opened up its cloaca and made a little 'fft' noise.

    So yes. Birds do fart. Right in my friend's face.

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  11. I think birds do fart.
    Here is a shot of a peacock that looks to be passing wind! http://www.pbase.com/image/111993517 He had not pooped ... From Wild Peafowl Gallery

    Laura you may enjoy my Birds (SF Bay Area)Galleries.
    http://www.pbase.com/cits_4_pets/birds

    Flo

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  12. Is this our tax dollars at work?

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  13. This blog is produced entirely at my expense, on my own time. No tax dollars at work here. But thanks for asking.

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  14. I have a follow up question - if birds fart, does this mean dinosaurs also farted? This is the question my six year old wants answered. My usual best guess on dinosaurs is "if birds and mammals both do it, dinosaurs probably did, too." So I believe dinosaurs yawned and sneezed - both things birds clearly do. But what about farts.

    Which gets to the question - do bird digestive tracts tell us anything about dinosaurs?

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  15. I just loved it!

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  16. I heard this question asked on the CBC a few years ago by a vet at the University of Saskatchewan. His answer: some birds fart, some don't. The deciding factor is the presence or absence of sphincters you have some control over. From the comments above, I'd suspect that parrots have them.

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  17. Loved this article because while eating dinner tonight my 8 year old son (he has Autism and one of his "quirks" is his ability to retain knowledge that has no specific "usefulness" in every day life)said that if you feed a seagull a bean, it will die because it can't fart. Typically I take his bits of knowledge at face value cause he reads the encyclopedia all the time, but I asked him where he heard this and he told me a friend told him. So I suggested we do some research to find out if this is true. There is a lot out there that is contradicting but you made the most sense and had the most credibility. :)

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