Bird Poop Interview

Car Talk Interviews Burton Silver, Co-Author of "What Bird Did That? A Guide to Some Common Birds of North America."

Us: Burton, just what the heck were you thinking when you decided to write this book? Or were you thinking at all?

Him: One of the main reasons that Peter Hansard and I wrote "What Bird Did That" was our concern that motorists were unaware of what a bird dropping spread out on their windshield was able to tell them about the bird-life in the area they were driving through.

Us: You mean to say, you were totally serious about this?

Him: The car windshield, traveling at speed, is an ideal collection device for ornithological dejecta. What happens when the dejecta hits the windscreen is that it spreads out into a beautifully backlit display which can be studied closely by those traveling inside the car.

Us: Why is bird poop on a windshield called a "splay?" Are you just trying to create important-sounding scientific jargon in preparation for receiving enormous grants from the National Science Foundation?

Him: It's a word that comes from the combination of the words "splat," "spread" and "display." These splays tell us not only what birds live in the area, but also what they eat.

Us: You mean, you're picking the poop apart?

Him: With the precision of a neurosurgeon. The dejecta will tell us what berries are currently available, what insects are out and about and so on. By carefully controlling the speed of the car after a poop strikes, the skilled driver is able to control the spread of the splay and its drying time so that it can be removed from the screen for collection and further study.

Us: In your book, you have a detailed diagram of the various types of splay and their different parts. Doesn't that constitute a gratuitous avian fecal obsession? graph 1

Him: Actually, a knowledge of different parts of each splay is essential to fully describe and understand the variations in ornithological dejecta. It enables collectors of splays from all round the world to talk the same language when they compare notes.

Us: You're telling us there are scientists who spend their days analyzing the gunk in bird poop? Are our tax dollars supporting this?

Him: Yes, if I have anything to do with it. To the tune of millions of dollars.

Us: How can we get a grant?

Him: Turn off that tape recorder and we can talk. I have a big gull project you could work near the Fishkill landfill, outside New York City.

Us: What is the largest splay ever recorded?

Him: The largest recorded splay was collected by the windshield of a Greyhound bus in Florida in May of 1997, when it passed under an open-sided pedestrian bridge at the same time that an ostrich was passing over the bridge. The entire windscreen was completely covered, causing the driver to brake violently. Several passengers received facial lacerations and one was suffocated when the windshield collapsed. The splay weighed seven pounds, six ounces, and covered 12 square feet.

Us: Was this the famed "splay heard round the world"?

Him: That's the one. Subsequent research showed that the ostrich had been eating a high-fiber diet and had somehow just finished ingesting several bags of coffee beans. You might say a number of fortuitous events fell into place to make this famed poop happen.

Us: "What Bird Did That" is dedicated to the memory of Arnold McLay. What is his relevance to this movement, so to speak?

Him: Arnold passed away in August 1986 while attempting to bring to our headquarters a rare triple splay. Unfortunately, the splay had almost completely obscured his vision, and in order to see properly, Arnold was forced to drive with his head protruding from the driver's window.

Us: So?

Him: Well, he was decapitated when he misjudged his proximity to an oncoming tractor-trailer. Thankfully, the splay survived and is in the permanent collection of the Birmingham Ornithological Dejecta Society. A plaque underneath the windshield reads:

"The Last Great Splay of Arnold McLay"

Those words are an inspiration to us all.



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