The World’s Bird Poop Obsession


Throughout history, humans have prized a lot
of animals for making products that we find beautiful or useful. Silkworms for their silk, whales for their
blubber, sheep for their wool. But in the mid-1800s, a bird called the guanay
cormorant was considered the most valuable in the world! It was nicknamed the ‘billion dollar bird,’
because its poop, or guano, was an amazing fertilizer. At the beginning of the 19th century, populations
were exploding – and all those people needed to eat. Large-scale agriculture had been booming for
a few hundred years, and soils were quickly getting depleted of nutrients. Enter Alexander von Humboldt, European explorer
extraordinaire. While exploring the coast of Peru in 1802,
von Humboldt came across workers unloading a shipment of guano from the Chincha Islands. Indigenous cultures in the area had been using
the guano on these islands as a source of fertilizer for hundreds of years, so von Humboldt
definitely didn’t discover guano. But, like any good explorer, he took a sample
of it back with him to Europe. And at the time, people didn’t know much
about the science of fertilizers. Farmers recognized that adding things like
ground-up bones, ash or feces to soil helped plants grow, but scientists weren’t sure
why this worked. We now know the answer is elementary. Actually elementary — like literally it’s
elements that are involved. These materials all have a lot of nitrogen,
phosphorus, and other elements that help plants grow. Plants use nitrogen to make important proteins
and pigments, like chlorophyll, which lets them absorb sunlight and do photosynthesis
and not die. Phosphorus is needed to make DNA and RNA,
as well as cell membranes and the molecules all living things use to make and store energy. Without these elements, plants can’t make
more cells or even function with the cells they have. But even if scientists had known this at the
time, it wouldn’t have helped them very much – there just weren’t many good sources
of nitrogen and phosphorus that plants could use. There’s plenty of nitrogen in the air, of
course, but plants can’t just suck it in like carbon dioxide. They usually rely on bacteria in soil to convert,
or fix, the nitrogen into a slightly different form — like nitrate or ammonium — that
they can actually use. If the soil has been exhausted of these chemicals,
it’s really hard to grow crops. Which brings us back to the Chincha Islands. It turns out, bird guano is amazingly rich
with these sources of fixed nitrogen and phosphorus. In fact, it’s even better than cow dung
or horse dung. Cows and horses only eat plants. But guanay cormorants feast almost entirely
on anchovy-like fish. That protein-rich diet means a lot of nitrogen
eventually shows up in their poop! Plus, bird poop is really poop and pee combined,
so that’s extra nitrogen and phosphorus that other animal dung leaves out. As for why this natural fertilizer could just
pile up, thank the dry climate of coastal Peru. In most of the world, bird poop will simply
get washed away. But ocean currents from Antarctica ensure
it almost never rains on the islands, allowing guano to harden, locking in layer upon layer
upon layer of nitrate-phosphate goodness. So, when word finally reached Europe that
von Humboldt had potentially found a great new source of fertilizer… they went crazy
for it. Almost immediately, the Peruvian government
started huge mining operations, selling the guano to any country that wanted it. Other countries got involved, too. In 1856, the United States even went so far
as to pass the Guano Islands Act, which allowed American citizens to claim any island they
wished, so long as it had guano on it and wasn’t already claimed by another country. Guano miners came from all over the world,
harvesting the seemingly limitless resource. But while the guano boom was great for agriculture,
it was bad news for the guanay cormorant and other seabirds that called the islands home. Miners ate the birds and their eggs — which
was not really smart, when you think about it — and destroyed their habitat to the point
that their populations began to fall. By the 1870s, most of the guano on these islands
had been already been mined. A few decades later, Peru started protecting
the remaining cormorants — it’s one of the first examples of a government stepping
in to protect a natural resource. But for the guano industry, it was too late. With fewer droppings to mine, and the discovery
of artificial fertilizer, the guano boom went bust. German chemist Fritz Haber had figured out
how to fix nitrogen from the air and turn it into ammonia, which could in turn be used
to develop synthetic fertilizers. These worked just as well, if not better,
than guano. We’ve been using these fertilizers for decades
to feed billions of people. But guano might not have outlived its usefulness
just yet. Recently, the rise of organic farming has
increased demand for high-quality organic fertilizers, and guano is one of the best. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow,
which was brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you want to help support this show, just
go to patreon.com/scishow. And don’t forget to go to youtube.com/scishow
and subscribe!

100 thoughts on “The World’s Bird Poop Obsession

  1. We're going to get bird poop from this bird… and eat the bird… and their young

    -we don't have any more bird poop showing up!
    -we didn't think this through did we?

  2. My thoughts when I saw the thumbnail: "I'm guano watch this video" and then, "I hate myself"

  3. You the real MVP for reminding me what nitrogen fixation is I always confuse it with nitrification my ap envi sci test score thanks you

  4. I Bet the people who ate guano's egg thought that their poop will eventually become as good as guano's and they will now become millionaires by pooping…………………

  5. Green and Folks, thumbs up from Brasil! I just wish this channel never ends, you guys opened my mind with your videos. I'd never recall to enter the Patreons site(sorry :s) but i got a way to help this incredible iniciative that is SciShow, i just sended you handmade Portuguese subtitles. Thank you and keep with the good work! @SciShow

  6. Which came first : Calling the bird poop or calling poop the name of a bird ???? And eating a bird called poop is bad but not thinking that choice through to its logical end : Priceless !!

  7. You dont mention that nitrates are also used in making explosives, and the great powers wanted it for that reason too. they almost went to war over it. Some islands were almost entirely guano that had built up for millennia, and not only the birds but also human populations suffered from the near total destruction of some of them.

  8. I mean really important and all, bird poop, but what about sonoluminescence. When is scishow gonna talk about the shit that matters ;)!

  9. So Peruvians have been using guano for decades then the white man shows up and now we only know the white man's name. Typical.

  10. This stuff was apparently so useful, that it was kinda of the reason why Spain had went to war with some of its former colonies in what was called the Chincha Islands War (1864).

  11. The Humboldt University of Berlin was not named after Alexander von Humboldt, but after his brother Wilhelm von Humboldt.

  12. Is man made nitrogen bad for you verses organic guano in any way? I would say no, just how gmos aren't bad for us in any way, then why is organic fertilizer such a big deal to some people? Is buying the same but more expensive food a status symbol?

  13. You guys forgot to mention the most important part of all this! Guano is just about the only good source of phosphorus (an extremely important plant nutrient) and the global farming industry is going to use up all of the guano reserves within about 100 years. Scientists haven't found another source of phosphorus (natural or synthetic) to make fertilizer with that can replace guano, so when those guano reserves run out, there could be a global famine as the worlds crops are deprived of a vital nutrient.

  14. Fun fact. My calculus professor calls indeterminate form guano. Wish math community would adopt this terminology!

  15. I grew my first pumpkins this year, didn't know that due to lack of bees, I had to personally make the plant mate.

  16. do an episode on hemp! what it can do; fully degradable plastics, hemp concrete, toxic removal from soil, textile, food, paper, oil etc.
    this topic is of a so much importance!

  17. Literally made a video about this same problem with the African Penguin about a month ago except they actually nest in their own poop as well so we took their nesting sites on top of probably eating them as well. Silly people of the past. 😛

  18. from "why does my asshole burn?" to "why is bird shit white?"

    leave it to sci-show to ask the deep questions…

  19. Organic farming=more damage to the environment. I'm all for lowering the earth's population, but I prefer to do it by lowering the birth rate through responsible behavior as opposed to starvation.

  20. comon humans let's eat all these birds and we use our poop? instead of extincted birds poop

  21. this is neat,my grandpa use to go catfishing and the bones and skin and stuff left over was used in his garden to help the plants grow along with cow poop. best garden ever.

  22. Tl;dw

    People found new source of fertilizer produced by a bird, and proceeded to destroy the species as they bleed it for all they can.

    What's new?

  23. I'm completely amazed that you made this video without talking about the main reason the guano was harvested: for salt peter to make gunpowder. The purpose was military as much as anything else.

  24. I may be wrong but doesn't human urine contain a lot of urea? Why not just idk purify it to get water and urea? Seems like a win-win to me.

  25. Check out the history of The Nitrate King, and the offices of Gibbs and Lockett. These men became fabulously wealthy in the late 19th century.

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