I don’t know if my son was watching a nature program, or if he’d been talking about this at school, or what. All I know is that, as we were walking into the condo one day, he suddenly stops and points. “Look dad! An owl!”
I stare along the side of the building, wondering which of the trees he’s talking about. Or is it perched on a balcony, maybe? “I… don’t see it,” I say.
“It’s right there!” he exclaims, pointing. “Oh, no. It’s a squirrel. Look, dad! A squirrel!”
“I don’t see it,” I tell him. “But my eyes aren’t as good as yours.”
He nods at that. “Dad?”
“Why do birds poop and pee at the same time?”
…that is not what I thought he was going to ask.
Do they poop and pee at the same time?
This seems like the first place to start, because I’m not at all certain they do. I mean, sure. I’ve heard this before. But it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve found that “received wisdom” is wrong and that something I thought was true wasn’t true. However, in this case, it seems that received wisdom is correct.
This is going to be more than I wanted to know, isn’t it?
Hey, you’re the one reading this.
Pretty much all animals produce ammonia (NH3) during digestion. It’s a side effect of the breakdown of proteins, which all animals need whether they’re carnivores or herbivores. Ammonia is, however, toxic (doses of 350 mg/kg of weight can kill), which means that animals have to deal with it in some fashion. And by “deal with” I mean “get rid of”.
Generally speaking, mammals will mix it with some of the waste carbon dioxide (CO2) they produce through breathing and convert it into urea (CO(NH3)2) – a far less toxic chemical (the lethal dose is 8,471 mg/kg) that also happens to be water soluble. Mammals then, generally speaking, expel it (along with other waste chemicals) in the form of urine.
Birds don’t do this. Birds, it seems, don’t even have bladders.
Sigh. Tell me more.
To start with, most birds convert ammonia into uric acid (C5H4N3O3, lethal dose around 5040 mg/kg) instead of urea. The other thing they do, which is the reason why they simultaneously poop and pee, has to do with anatomy. See, bird excretory systems work a lot like lizards. They have kidneys, of course, and ureters (the ducts that allow urine to leave the kidney). However, they lack bladders. Instead, they have something called a cloaca – a multipurpose organ that serves as both the reproductive and excretory organ.
The urine enters the cloaca through the ureters, where it is pushed up into the large intestine. The large intestine re-absorbs much of the water content, allowing the urine to be concentrated into a thick paste before it is passed by the bird. since uric acid dries white, this lends bird droppings their distinctive appearances.
So, in short, birds poop and pee at the same time because of evolution. And because they aren’t equipped to poop and pee separately.