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Quality Muck

Tony Soper Writes
12th January 1997

Where there's muck there's money. Bird droppings may be a nuisance when they pile up on the windowsill under the martin nests, but they represent real value when they land under the soft fruit. So when the thrushes take your soft fruit console yourself with the thought that they leave behind a little nugget of nitrogen-rich fertiliser.

City centres accumulate more than their fair share of pigeon droppings, and it's a pity they can't be more easily collected and marketed. Sociable seabirds offer the most likely prospects, and in some parts of the world the deposits of dung which have piled up through the centuries have brought real prosperity. Cormorants produce several ounces of rich faeces every day; so do pelicans, boobies and tropical penguins. And on the coastal islands of Peru and Chile the resulting guano deposits have been mined with gusto. It was the Incas who first realised the horticultural value of guano - the dessicated droppings of countless seabirds - and by the nineteenth century the Peruvian economy was actually underpinned by the trade in exports to Europe and the United States.

Today the seabird colonies are encouraged and protected for the sake of the sustainable harvest of rich fertiliser. Off the coast of South Africa there are artificial islands - giant bird tables in the sea - put there to provide attractive nest sites for cormorants and cape gannets, in return for the annual deposits of valuable droppings.

Whiter Than White

Which reminds me of that probably apocryphal story of the embryo birder on a round-the-island boat trip in the Isles of Scilly, off West Cornwall. Full of an admirable spirit of enquiry, he asked the boatman "why is it that all the birds sit on white rocks?" Well allright, you don't have to believe that one, although I do.

But I can vouch for this next one with my hand on my heart. We were steaming quietly along in the midst of the Franz Josef islands in the Barents Sea. Standing on the foredeck of a mighty Russian icebreaker we were looking out for seals on the occasional icefloe. Slowly into view came a solitary floe with three dark shapes on it. As we came closer it became clear that the shapes were those of sleeping walruses. As we passed they woke and gave us a lazy and dismissive glance, before rolling over and going back to sleep. "Can they swim?", asked the guy standing next to me...

Tony Soper

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