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Avian hygiene comes to Emmitsburg

Bill Meredith

Yonder on the morning’s blink,
the sun is up, and so must I,
to wash and dress and eat and drink,
and look at things, and talk and think,
and work… and God knows why.
~ A, E. Housman, "May."

(6/2017) I don’t remember the exact date, but it was back in February, before the leaves had started coming out, and it started like an ordinary day. Acting purely from habit, I went out to fill the bird feeder and get the paper from the driveway. It was early enough to be fairly quiet; the sun was coming up, but the sky was overcast, so the light was not good for seeing birds or other assorted wildlife. There was no need to be scanning the sky, but I did… if you grow up on a farm, that’s part of the habit. And then I saw something I’d never seen before in my life. Perched in a tree about 25 feet above me was a roll of toilet paper.

Habits. Everybody has them. We are trained from childhood to do certain things at certain times… routine things that have to be done every day, like those listed in Housman’s poem, so there will be time to spend on more interesting or important activities. When we were children, we spent a lot of time just looking at things; that’s how we learned. A lot of people gradually lose that habit as they grow older; but others keep the habit of looking at things all their lives, and end up becoming ecologists. And that leads to another habit… thinking about the things we see, and asking questions about them. Sometimes they aren’t very important, but we think and question anyhow; we can’t help it. As Pogo used to say, "It’s in the blood." Old habits don’t just die hard; sometimes they don’t die at all.

I stood there and stared up into the tree for a while, probably with my mouth open, and then I went inside and told my wife. She is a woman of many virtues, but being an ecologist is not one of them, and she didn’t find a roll of toilet paper in a tree nearly as interesting as I did. So I was left to spend the rest of the morning asking questions. How did it get up there? Why would something like that happen? What will be the result of it? Would it really matter in the grand scheme of things?

About 700 years ago, William of Ockham proclaimed that when confronted with a complex question that has several possible answers, we should choose the answer that requires the fewest unprovable assumptions. Thus I was able to rule out Divine Intervention, and assume that human activity must have been the force that propelled the roll of toilet paper into the tree. I recalled occasions in the crazy times of the 1960s when college students celebrated Halloween and other festive occasions by tossing either toilet paper or various items of intimate apparel out of dormitory windows… an interesting and nostalgic idea, but there were no buildings of suitable height near the tree. Could it have fallen or been deliberately dropped from an airplane? Not impossible, but surely it would have unrolled on the way down. Could it have fallen off a passing truck and been blown up there by a gust of wind? Unlikely; the tree is near a sharp turn in the road, where traffic cannot go more than 5 mph, and the wind had been calm lately. The only remotely possible agent of propulsion was the human arm. A small child couldn’t have thrown it that high; any healthy adult could have thrown it, but usually adults are not motivated to do such things. So by elimination, a wandering teen-ager would seem the most likely culprit.

The old pruning hook that my father used to trim apple trees now sleeps peacefully in my garage. It is about 10 feet long, so I got it out and reached into the tree with it, but it was not long enough to reach the toilet paper. Climbing the tree was not an option at my age; even if I had been 30 years younger, there were too many small, dense branches, and the thought of getting stuck half-way up and my wife calling the fire department would have been embarrassing. I considered getting out the extension ladder, but it is getting too heavy for me to maneuver safely. So in the end I decided to leave the roll up there. Surely wind and rain would bring it down soon.

March and April came and went, and the trees bloomed and put out leaves. I more or less forgot about the toilet paper, but when the robins came back from their winter vacations and began nesting, I noticed one of them carrying a piece of white material in its beak. I checked and found that the toilet paper was still in the tree, looking a bit ragged. Before long, I noticed cardinals, sparrows and catbirds were also carrying off bits of it. At first, I assumed that they were just lining their nests with it; but then I began to wonder if they might be using it for its originally intended purpose. Most of the larger birds like pigeons, mourning doves, and blackbirds, take a cavalier attitude toward housekeeping; some, like eagles, hawks and herons, are brazenly negligent about it.

A few of the invasive immigrant species like English sparrows and starlings seem to flaunt their disregard of it. But many of the smaller songbirds are fastidious housekeepers. As a child, I noticed that each time the house wrens that nested on my grandmother’s back porch brought a mouthful of insects to feed their young ones, they would carry away little membranous sacs of fecal waste that the nestlings had excreted. They never left that material near the nest; they usually carried it across the road and attached it to the barbed-wire fence. Years later, when I took the course in Ornithology in college, I learned that for small songbirds, such habits of hygiene are a matter of survival. Spatterings of such waste around a nest would be a sure sign to predators that young birds were nearby.

Early in May we had about four inches of rain, accompanied by wind, and the remains of the roll of toilet paper finally fell out of the tree, all by itself. A good deal of it was missing, and for a while I wondered if the birds had learned to use it, and the universe… or at least the part of it occupied by my yard… might become a bit tidier. However, I have noticed that the volume of bird droppings on my car does not seem to have decreased, so evidently the adult birds have gone back to their old ways. But there may still be hope; perhaps the young ones who grew up under more hygienic conditions will change their ways. Hope springs eternal. I will wait and see how things are next spring before I give up on them.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith