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Bird snit: the bane of all who boat

There’s nothing like waking up to that gentle sound of rain on your deck and finding it’s really the pitter-patter of falling fecal matter. Now, I’ve got nothing against birds, really I don’t. I just wish they felt the same way about me.

Dealing with birds and what they leave behind is a fact of life if you spend time on the water.

With all the trees in the world, all the dock pilings, all the telephone poles, all the cars, I don’t understand why they have to use my boat as their marine sanitation device.

I’ve tried lots of things to keep bird droppings off my boat and lots of other things to clean up when the first things didn’t work. Having delved knee-deep into the subject for many years, I consider myself somewhat of an expert. Before we go any further, let me say that it drives me nuts when I’m writing to use some fancy word like “droppings” that I never use at any other time and that nobody I know ever uses. I would rather just call it what you and I always call it. And I know what you call it, and you know what I call it. However, because of editorial sensitivity guidelines written long ago by well-intentioned people who’ve never had to clean bird s- - - off their decks two or three times a day, I’m saying “bird droppings” so we don’t get into trouble here.

The first thing that must be said is directed to those who are skeptical as to the true extent of the problem. Every time I bring up the subject at cocktail parties and other sophisticated gatherings, there are always a few people around who don’t have boats and who don’t understand. They must also be illiterate. All you have to do to fully understand the seriousness of the maritime bird drop dilemma is to read Michener’s “Hawaii.”

In the opening pages, he eloquently describes the very propagation of life itself in the early days of our planet as birds, even then, prolifically pooped on barren rocks far out at sea, leaving droppings with seeds tenaciously clinging to those rocks until foliage and all sorts of other creatures grew. I have to wonder whether he would have been quite so eloquent if he had been standing on any of those rocks at the time. Maybe the bespeckled deck of my Chez Nous means that she’s a part of some grand plan, but if so I wish that plan would include birds that fly upside down.

* * *

There are some grand business plans around that are supposed to make birds “drop” elsewhere. We’ve used the big balloons with faces with some success, but every time the wind blows hard they blow away and hang up somewhere else, sending all the birds to my boat. We’ve also used blow-up snakes on the deck, but innocents walking along the dock frequently stop, pound on my hull and say, “Uh, excuse me, but do you know you have a snake on your boat?” And there’s nothing like going up on deck to check things out at 2 a.m. and seeing one of those things maliciously staring up at you from under a pile of bird poo.

Once we borrowed a large plastic owl that a friend had bought at a garage sale. It did a great job of attracting live owls. Now there was a delightful deluge! You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced deck decorations from owls.

This is clearly serious business — so serious that many businesses are going all out to profit from it. We’ve done our share of funding these heroes. In addition to the products mentioned above, we’ve hung CDs in the rigging, letting them flash their anti-bird rays as they reflect sun while swinging in the wind. We’ve tied monofilament around the boat from masts to stanchions and other points. This works well because the birds don’t see it and fly into it. This really ticks them off.

Someone told me that if a protected bird flies into my monofilament it might get “upset,” and I might be breaking the law. My reply is simple: I’m just securing monofilament so that it won’t get into the water. That’s one of the noblest environmentally correct things we can do today. And if the birds fly into it, that’s their problem. (The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on this one yet.) But I found that there are two issues with the monofilament solution. One is that birds still “do it” from above, and the other is that I can’t see it, either, when I stumble out on deck in the dead of night to do what guys do when they stumble out on deck in the dead of night.

Our most recent foray into the fight has been to install Bird Spikes, which we purchased from West Marine. We have them glued and wire-tied to the very top of each of our two masts. Going to the top of a 60-plus-foot mast to do this is clearly an act of valor. The operative principle of these devices is similar to what you did when you were in college achieving “higher education”: smearing a thin layer of Vaseline or similar lubricant over the toilet seats. Bird Spikes have the opposite effect. Imagine sitting down after someone glued thumb tacks to that toilet seat.

Shortly after installing these spikes on Chez Nous, our daughter Carolyn took a lovely photo on her cellphone of a very large osprey sitting up there on the spikes. (It’s why they say ospreys are “bad-assed birds.”) But overall the spikes seem to be helping, if not being totally dispositive of the issue. When a bird starts to settle down on the mast top to do his business, the spikes stick him in the precise spot from which he’s getting ready to do his business. I’ve enjoyed watching some really upset birds as they flew away, squawking angrily.

When the deterrent products fail, the ever imaginative boating industry, always eager to rise to the challenge, has fallback products. For example, Star brite has its Spider and Bird Stain Remover. I quote from the website: “Droppings from birds and spiders ruin the looks of any boat and can’t be removed with just soap and water. But just spray on Star brite Spider & Bird Stain Remover, and they’ll begin to break down instantly. Droppings dissolve without hard scrubbing.” We tried it and bought some more. I can attest that “dissolving droppings” gives a beleaguered boater a distinct warm and fuzzy feeling. It’s like an “ahh” moment after you’ve just seen a bird dump on an environmental officer.

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I know our economy is struggling, and I wouldn’t want to throw a damper on the success of any businesses, but I must tell you about cheaper way of getting birds off. All you have to do is to grab the stays and rattle the rigging as hard as you can. I live on a motorsailer, and I’ve got lots of rigging to rattle. But this isn’t as easy as it seems. First, you have to have a mast, and many powerboats wisely don’t. Next, you must be aboard. Then you have to hear the pitter patter, and lastly, you have to get up the nerve to run out into the deluge and grab the stays and shake. And there are a few more drawbacks. As I stand there shaking and looking up joyfully, and as the masthead light bulbs and all of the nuts and bolts come tumbling down, and as the birds fly away squawking, they always they let me know exactly what they think of me.

Some people tell me I ought to stop griping and spending money and just scrub my deck. Are you kidding? That’s work! I’ll do anything I can to avoid using a brush. Besides, what ends up on my boat usually won’t succumb to a brush. It’s more likely to need a pneumatic jackhammer. My idea of cleaning the deck is to grandly stand there squirting the hose the way the pretty people are always doing in the yachting magazines.

I’ve learned that the only way to remove bird “droppings” without much work is to get it while it’s still fresh. But this involves rather precise timing. One thing you do want to do is to rush out on deck and get it before it’s dried, but one thing you don’t want to do is to rush out while the stuff is still plummeting. It’s very important to wait until after your feathered friends have departed to reload. And then, when you do rush out, you have to rush slowly to avoid slipping and, far worse, falling.

I’m careful to err on the side of caution, and therefore I generally wait so long that this glue of evolution has dried for eternity. So over the years, I’ve worked on the development of other methods of loosening dried bird droppings without working too hard. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much more success in this field than I’ve had in the field of keeping birds off in the first place.

The most important thing I’ve learned is to never dock in a marina that has only 60 psi water pressure in its pier plumbing when the semifresh birdie poo of the local flock needs 80 psi or more to bust it loose. When I make reservations at marinas, I always ask the typical pertinent questions: How deep is your entrance? Do you have easy-access fuel docks? And is there free coffee in the boaters’ lounge? But when I then ask on the VHF whether the water pressure is sufficient to remove the droppings of the local aviary population, they never seem to have a good answer except to tell me they’re suddenly full for the night.

However, I have learned that if the water pressure is inadequate I can improve its effect with the hose-kink technique: kink the hose until it bulges to its maximum and quickly let go. In addition to precipitating the premature demise of some very good hoses, I’ve been able to send quite a few petrified splatters hurtling through the air. True, they often land on other boats, but at least they don’t stick.

But I should keep this problem in perspective. Suppose there had been some guy back there a few millennia ago cleaning all of the bird droppings off those barren rocks out in the ocean. Where would we be now? So I shouldn’t gripe about birds, their mess and the difficulty of cleaning it off my boat. And I should be fervently grateful that these days there are plenty of laws protecting birds and, thus, protecting the further development of our planet. However, if you remember Michener, you should also wonder why they don’t also protect birdie poop. Actually, not only do they protect it, but they also promote it in some places.

In large areas of the Florida Keys, they’ve gone the extra mile in areas of “endangered” sea grasses. These areas are also, incidentally, no-discharge zones. Boats must use holding tanks despite on-board treatment devices that discharge effluent that’s “99.99 percent or greater” pathogen-free. Yet the government has spent huge amounts of money erecting birdie rest stations to encourage birds to poop in the water to help the grass grow. Never mind that these rest stations are hazards to navigation.

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In the Chesapeake Bay area, there is an osprey fetish that has resulted in not merely osprey rest stations but also manmade osprey homes. To put this in perspective, osprey droppings are marvelous to behold on your deck or your dodger windscreen. They frequently contain large chunks of partially digested fish. Yes, they do.

And when they sit (note there’s no “h” in the preceding word) on your mast, it all comes raining down like a biblical plague. And you’re not supposed to in any way bother these huge birds. They’re so entitled that many people who move out from the cities to the waterfront seem to feel obligated to erect specially designed osprey nesting posts in the water while they’re building their docks. However I’ve noticed that most ospreys seem to lack interest in these donated habitats, preferring instead to nest on boats. But geese, which make an even bigger mess than ospreys, love to nest on the posts, spending the entire mating season there, except for the times when they go potty, at which point they fly to the nearest dock or boat. There seems to be no bounds to where this is all going.

Some years ago a politically correct, law-abiding gentleman walked down his yard to his boathouse one fine spring morning, happy with the world and life in general. His intent was to revive his cabin cruiser from its winter’s rest and get it ready for summer fun. I suppose he was elated to find on his flybridge top a large, gangly osprey nest inhabited by eggs and a not-so-friendly mother. When you think of “nest,” you must keep in mind that an osprey nest is not the cute, cuddly little down-lined pile of sticks and twigs of the proverbial robin. An osprey nest is more like a jumbled collection of small logs and trees.

Needless to say, his flybridge top and the deck around it were covered with much more than the nest. With all good intentions, he called the local environmental agents to enlist their help so that the cherished eggs would hatch unscathed and the cherished birdies would be afforded the protection to which they were entitled by law. It took no time for them to give him their answer. “Don’t touch, move or use your boat until the eggs are hatched and the babies fly away.”

Never mind that this would take months and that he wouldn’t be able to use his boat for much of the season. And certainly never mind that he obviously needed more protection than the birds, which were pooping unchecked onto his boat the entire time. And the gentleman, when he made the mistake of calling to ask, was informed that even cleaning the poop ruining his boat might illegally ruin the birds’ day.

A plastic snake will usually scare people, not birds.

But sometimes, despite our very best intentions, we end up inadvertently “bothering” birds. This was well demonstrated some years ago as we were sailing north up the Florida coast, off the Palm Beach area, trying to find wind and trying to avoid birds. We were electrified by the call of “Mayday, mayday, mayday.” The frantic gentleman gave his approximate location and said that he’d been trolling and a pelican had swooped down, grabbed his very expensive lure, and was hooked.

The severity of the problem became evident as he cried out that the pelican was flying around at the end of his line, making circles around the boat and swooping the boat. And you know what that pelican was doing: the same thing you or I would do if we’d just taken a bite out of our favorite food and found we were hooked to a line of monofilament. Except the pelican wasn’t wearing any pants.

It wasn’t clear whether the fisherman’s line had tangled on the spool or he just didn’t want to lose his lure, but the bird wasn’t going away. We knew this because we could see it and the boat as we hastened northward. His cries for help on the VHF quickly ceased as perhaps better judgment took sway over his bespattered panic and he began to think about who was more protected, the pelican or the innocent fisherman. The pelican is the one protected, but if you haven’t had the pleasure of pelican poo on your deck, you haven’t lived. I saw one dump on the hatless head of a gentlemen standing on a dock once, and it wasn’t pretty.

* * *

If you’re sitting there smugly thinking you’re immune to all this because you seldom use your boat, you should know that you don’t have to be aboard to be victimized. Just being near the boat creates sufficient nexus for a boater to suffer the indignities. I’ll never forget a certain elegant cookout on the dock some years ago.

You haven’t lived until you’ve had seagull scat in your chardonnay. And it wasn’t just chardonnay — it was very good chardonnay, a lot better than the rotgut I usually buy because our friends Pam and Rob had bought it. When you’re holding your chilled, sweating glass, thinking of that next delicious sip, and the liquid mysteriously splashes and then clouds up, you know something’s wrong with heaven. But there had been a warning, if only for a millisecond.

We first heard it coming like the first big splatters of an afternoon tropical rain shower. I remember thinking for the first part of that millisecond, Wait, last time I looked up there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Then came the impact. More than one. Lots of impacts. Big white impacts. The tablecloth erupted like the ground beneath a fighter jet on a strafing mission. We felt it even as we heard it.

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One of the ladies was wearing a white blouse. She was the lucky one. You couldn’t see the drops as well against a white background. The other was wearing a stylish black T-shit — uh, I mean T-shirt. No question on that shirt as to what was happening. I was wearing my usual torn and dirty shorts and shirt. What the heck, nothing matters with clothes like that. We all did the same thing at the same time: looked up. It was not a good idea. Yep, still not a cloud in the sky. Just a very big, very happy, very relieved seagull heading out over the bay to reload. The good news was that it wasn’t circling for another run — yet.

After an event such as that, you think of a lot of things. The first thing I thought of was whether we were going to eat any more dinner. The buttery kernels on the sweet corn didn’t quite seem to look just as they had before. The salad presented more of a mystery. When you can’t tell whether it’s feta cheese or well-digested fish, the appetite wanes. The only good part was that I’d been a pig and had already eaten all of my share of the shrimp. The benefits of piggishness were more than evident as I looked at all the compromised shrimp on everyone else’s plates. But then there was the mystery of whether the white blob that had hit my wine glass had clearly impacted only the outside of the glass. That’s what I wanted to believe, despite the sudden discoloration of the wine, until a very loud voice inside my head said, “There’s no way you’re going to drink that fine glass of wine.”

If you’re into boating, and I know you are, you probably know just what I’m talking about, although you might not want to admit it. This type of experience has happened to you — I just know it has. Or at least it’s going to happen to you. All we were doing was sitting down at the picnic table on the dock having a nice dinner with some friends. The ladies had wanted to do something special — and also “healthy,” if anything “healthy” can be “special” — so they’d cooked some shrimp (instead of the usual chicken) on skewers over the grill. Mel’s salad was another healthy specialty, the only deference to sinful eating being the now disguised feta cheese.

You may wonder what you do about dinner after something like this. Mel and Pam wondered whether they’d ever want to eat again. Rob and I were wondering what else we could come up with to eat that night. Then I saw another boater heading to the trash bin with a large box of Kentucky Fried Chicken. “So did you eat it all?” I yelled across the parking lot.

“No, most of it is left because most of our company didn’t come. Do you want it?”

“Yes,” I yelled, sliding off the bench to get it. The guy gave me a strange look when I asked him whether the box had been closed during the last few minutes. As we dug in, one of those magic moments of life overwhelmed us. The box was not merely full of chicken; it was full of chicken wings. That’s probably the only reason that chickens don’t dump on boats. This poetic justice led to serious discussion, as more wine flowed (box wine), over how much money we could make selling seagull wings to KFC and places like that, not to mention what a favor we’d be doing for our fellow boaters. That popular “hot” wing sauce would surely cover up the fish taste.

But then we were told even seagulls enjoy the elevated status of being “protected.” Someone (who obviously can’t count) has figured that their population is “declining.” Are you kidding me? And chickens, which we eat by the millions, are not declining? But one of the diners said, “Stop griping and look at the bright side. Chickens don’t fly over boats — yet. And at least it was just seagull droppings. Think of what it could have been.”

As the implication settled in, we decided we’d better give thanks, even though the meal had begun some time ago. I had the honor: “Dear God, we give Thee thanks that it wasn’t a pelican.”


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August 2013 issue