A wildlife biologist in Idaho responded to an unusual call a few years ago - an owl was trapped in a campground toilet. When Joe Foust looked down into the holding tank of the toilet and saw a little boreal owl peering back up at him, something started that has likely saved the lives of thousands of birds.
Vault toilets are found in campgrounds on public lands across the country. Typically a cinder-block-and-cement-pad kind of outhouse, without plumbing, the waste is stored in a tank (or vault) underground. A vent pipe through the roof allows air to flow. And it allows cavity nesting birds like that boreal owl access to a space they can't escape.
Foust conducted a messy and successful rescue, and his spread. That was in 2010, and awareness has been growing about the threat open pipes pose to cavity nesting birds like owls, kestrels, bluebirds, and flickers. In Alaska, cavity nesting ducks like mergansers and goldeneyes use natural openings for nesting and roosting. An open vent, pipe and chimney can become trap, as the smooth sides and tight confines prevent escape.
The Teton Raptor Center in Wyoming has been instrumental in spreading the word and developing a solution - a screen that allows the air to flow through the vent, but prevents birds from getting in. More than 8,000 campground vault toilets have been screened across the country, including Alaska, and other types of pipes are being capped.