ostrich peeing

cormorant peeing

alligator peeing

Stand by . . . grumpy old man routine compiling . . . 

So, someone at Sony decided that an Angry Birds movie would be a good idea, about three years after the Angry Birds “having a moment” moment was over. There’s a trailer for it now, and at the end of the trailer, a bird pees for like 17 seconds (which is about 1/7 of my personal record, but whatever).

And now I see these Poindexters all over the internet pushing their glasses up their noses and typing, “But everyone knows that birds don’t pee! They make uric acid instead! That’s the white stuff in ‘bird poop’. Dur-hur-hur-hurrr!” I am reasonably sure these are the same people who harped on the “inaccuracy” of the peeing Postosuchus in Walking With Dinosaurs two decades ago. (Honestly, how I didn’t get this written and posted in our first year of blogging is quite beyond my capacity.)

Congratulations, IFLScientists, on knowing One Fact about nature. Tragically for you, nature knows countless facts, and among them are that birds and crocodilians can pee. And since extant dinosaurs can and do pee, extinct ones probably could as well.

So, you know . . . try to show a little respect.

So, you know . . . try to show a little respect.

Now, it is true that crocs (mostly) and birds (always?) release more of their nitrogenous waste as uric acid than as urea. But their bodies produce both compounds. So does yours. We mammals are just shifted waaaay more heavily toward urea than uric acid, and extant archosaurs – and many (but not all) other reptiles to boot – are shifted waaaay more heavily toward uric acid than urea. Alligators also make a crapload of ammonia, but that’s a story for another time.

BUT, crucially, birds and crocs almost always release some clear, watery, urea-containing fluid when they dump the whitish uric acid, as shown in this helpful diagram that I stole from International Cockatiel Resource:

International Cockatiel Resource bird pee guide

If you’ve never seen this, you’re just not getting to the bird poop fast enough – the urine is drying up before you notice it. Pick up the pace!

Sometimes birds and crocs save up a large quantity of fluid, and then flush everything out of their cloacas and lower intestines in one shot, as shown in the photos dribbled through this post. Which has led to some erroneous reports that ostriches have urinary bladders. They don’t, they just back up lots of urine into their colons. Many birds recapture some water and minerals that way, and thereby concentrate their wastes and save water – basically using the colon as a sort of second-stage kidney (Skadhauge 1976).

Rhea peeing by Markus Buhler

Many thanks to Markus Bühler for permission to post his well-timed u-rhea photo.

[UPDATE the next day: To be perfectly clear, all that’s going on here is that the birds and crocs keep their cloacal sphincters closed. The kidneys keep on producing urine and uric acid, and with no way out (closed sphincter) and nowhere else to go (no bladder – although urinary bladders have evolved repeatedly in lizards), the pee backs up into the colon. So if you’re wondering if extinct dinosaurs needed some kind of special adaptation to be able to pee, the answer is no. Peeing is an inherent possibility, and in fact the default setting, for any reptile that can keep its cloaca shut.]

Aaaanyway, all those white urate solids tend to make bird pee more whitish than yellow, as shown in the photos. I have seen a photo of an ostrich making a good solid stream from cloaca to ground that was yellow, but that was years ago and frustratingly I haven’t been able to relocate it. Crocodilians seem to have no problem making a clear, yellowish pee-stream, as you can see in many hilarious YouTube videos of gators peeing on herpetologists and reporters, which I am putting at the bottom of this post so as not to break up the flow of the rant.

ostrich excreting

You can explore this “secret history” of archosaur pee by entering the appropriate search terms into Google Scholar, where you’ll find papers with titles like:

  • “Technique for the collection of clear urine from the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus)” (Myburgh et al. 2012)
  • “Movement of urine in the lower colon and cloaca of ostriches” (Duke et al. 1995)
  • “Plasma homeostasis and cloacal urine composition in Crocodylus porosus caught along a salinity gradient” (Grigg 1981)
  • “Cloacal absorption of urine in birds” (Skadhauge 1976)
  • “The cloacal storage of urine in the rooster” (Skadhauge 1968)

I’ve helpfully highlighted the operative term, to reinforce the main point of the post. Many of these papers are freely available – get the links from the References section below. A few are paywalled – really, Elsevier? $31.50 for a half-century-old paper on chicken pee? – but I’m saving them up, and I’ll be happy to lend a hand to other scholars who want to follow this stream of inquiry. If you’re really into the physiology of birds pooling pee in their poopers, the work of Erik Skadhauge will be a gold mine.

Now, to be fair, I seriously doubt that any bird has ever peed for 17 seconds. But the misinformation abroad on the net seems to be more about whether birds and other archosaurs can pee at all, rather than whether a normal amount of bird pee was exaggerated for comedic effect in the Angry Birds trailer.

ostrich excreting 3

In conclusion, birds and crocs can pee. Go tell the world.

And now, those gator peeing videos I promised:


Jan. 30, 2016: I just became aware that I had missed one of the best previous discussions of this topic, with one of the best videos, and the most relevant citations! The post is this one, by Brian Switek, which went up almost two years ago, the video is this excellent shot of an ostrich urinating and then defecating immediately after:

…and the citations are McCarville and Bishop (2002) – an SVP poster about a possible sauropod pee-scour, which is knew about but didn’t mention yet because I was saving it for a post of its own – and Fernandes et al. (2004) on some very convincing trace fossils of dinosaurs peeing on sand, from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil. In addition to being cogent and well-illustrated, the Fernandes et al. paper has the lovely attribute of being freely available, here.

So, sorry, Brian, that I’d missed your post!

And for everyone else, stand by for another dinosaur pee post soon. And here’s one more video of an ostrich urinating (not pooping as the video title implies). The main event starts about 45 seconds in.


I’m scrambling to get everything done before I leave for England and SVPCA this weekend, so no time for a substantive post. Instead, some goodies from old papers I’ve been reading. Explanations will have to come in the comments, if at all.

Streeter (1904: fig. 3). Compare to the next image down, and note that in birds and other reptiles the spinal cord runs the whole length of the vertebral column, in contrast to the situation in mammals.

Streeter (1904: fig. 3). Compare to the next image down, and note that in birds and other reptiles the spinal cord runs the whole length of the vertebral column, in contrast to the situation in mammals.

Nieuwenhuys (1964: fig. 1)

Nieuwenhuys (1964: fig. 1)

Butler and Hodos (1996: fig. 16.27)

Butler and Hodos (1996: fig. 16.27)

For more noodling about nerves, please see:


  • Butler, A.B., and Hodos, W. 1996. Comparative Vertebrate Neuroanatomy: Evolution and Adaptation. 514 pp. Wiley–Liss, New York.
  • Nieuwenhuys, R. (1964). Comparative anatomy of the spinal cord. Progress in Brain Research, 11, 1-57.
  • Streeter, G. L. (1904). The structure of the spinal cord of the ostrich. American Journal of Anatomy, 3(1), 1-27.


Illustration talk slide 58

Illustration talk slide 59

Illustration talk slide 60

The rest of the series.


Illustration talk slide 47

Illustration talk slide 48

Illustration talk slide 49

Illustration talk slide 50

That last one really hurts. Here’s the original image, which should have gone in the paper with the interpretive trace next to it rather than on top of it:

Sauroposeidon C6-C7 scout

The rest of the series.

Papers referenced in these slides:

Bird vertebra diagrams

January 10, 2014

bird neck note sheet

I made these back in the day. The idea was that you could print them out and have them along while dissecting bird necks, so you could draw on the muscles.

bird neck note sheet - LEFT - all three views

It’s basically one drawing of an ostrich vertebra, morphed in GIMP and stacked to simulate articulation. All of the ones in this post show the vertebrae in left lateral view. If you need right views, flip ’em in GIMP or heck, I think even Windows Explorer will do that for you. The one above has dorsal views in the top row, lateral view in the middle row, and ventral views in the bottom row.

bird neck note sheet - LEFT - double lateral

Here’s a sheet with two rows in lateral view, the idea being that you draw on the more superficial multi-segment muscles on one row, and the deeper single- or two-segment muscles on the other row.

bird neck note sheet - LEFT - 12 cervicals

A version with 12 vertebrae, so you can map out the often complicated patterns of origins and insertions in the really long muscles. How complicated? Well, check out this rhea neck with the M. longus colli dorsalis and M. longus colli ventralis fanned out.

Rhea neck muscles fanned - full

That’s all. Have fun!

This is a caudal vertebra from the middle of the tail of an ostrich, LACM Bj342:


The middle row shows it in anterior, left lateral and posterior views; above and below the anterior view are the dorsal and ventral views. It’s about 5 cm across the transverse processes. (This figure is from a manuscript that Matt and I will submit to a journal probably within 24 hours.)

In compositing the different views, I had a heck of a time recognising what was what. The dorsal view looks so much more like what we’d expect a ventral view to look like — indeed, the two are more similar for this vertebra than for any other I’ve seen.

How about those big pnuematic foramina right at the top of the bone? At first, Matt and I thought we’d never seen anything like that before. But then we realised that we sort of had — in a cervical vertebra of Apatosaurus which appears as part one of Taylor and Wedel (2013: figure 9).


This is Apatosaurus sp. OMNH 01341 in right posterodorsolateral view. “las” marks a ligament attachment site — a big, baseball-sized rugose lump — and right next to it is a pneumatic foramen, marked “pfo”.

Just like this, the ostrich caudal is a saurischian vertebra with a bifid neural spine, and with pneumatic foramina within the intermetapophyseal cleft.

More from my flying visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. I found this exhibition of bird eggs very striking. In particular, it was shocking how much bigger the elephant-bird egg is than that of the ostrich.

From smallest to largest, the eggs are those of:

  1. Ruby-throated Hummingbird Archilochus colubris
  2. Common Redpoll Carduelis flammea
  3. House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus
  4. Eastern Screech Own Megascops asio
  5. Thick-billed Parrot Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncho
  6. Red-necked Grebe Podiceps grisegeno
  7. Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens
  8. Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
  9. Cackling Goose Branta hutchinsii
  10. Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus
  11. Tundra Swan Cygnus columbianus
  12. Wandering Albatross Diomedeo exulans
  13. Ostrich Struthio camelus
  14. Elephant bird Aepyornis sp.

As always, click through for full resolution.