Science | August 8, 2020 9:00 am

There’s a Surprisingly Large Market for Seabird Poop

A new study makes a convincing argument

Seabirds like these have a very lucrative byproduct.
Kognos/Creative Commons

Let’s say that you’re for a day of birding by the water. You’re taking in the sights of seabirds in flight, returning to their nest and hunting for prey. It’s a scenic day, so you get a little closer — and then you feel something hit your shirt. You shake your fist at the birds, muttering something about how their need to relieve themselves has placed you in an awkward laundry situation.

Bird poop can be an obnoxious thing to deal with, to be sure — but it’s also a surprisingly lucrative industry, at least when it comes to certain birds. Writing at Smithsonian Magazine, Courtney Sexton explored the value of seabird poop — and it’s one that could well exceed a billion dollars, according to a recent study.

That new study published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution titled “Valuing Ecosystem Services Can Help to Save Seabirds” offers some fascinating insights into the hidden value of seabird poop. The study notes that seabird guano is sold in a number of nations as a crop fertilizer. The study’s authors determined how much poop seabirds produced in a given year, then assigned it a value based on the price of guano sold in Peru and Chile.

The result? A not insignificant amount of money could be generated by seabirds in a given year — and in an environmentally beneficial way, no less.

Next the scientists estimated the value produced by non-guano-producing seabirds, who also excrete nitrogen and phosphorus. The researchers valued the chemicals based on the cost of inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus traded on the international market. The primary value of the poop based on replacement costs was around $474 million.

That’s not the only way that seabird poop might have a value. The remaining value was calculated based on the value of guano to coral reefs around the world. It might not be the most glamorous industry, but the study’s findings are nothing to caw at.

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