Friday, January 25, 2013


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (1/25/2013)


          Meine Űberfrau tells the story of pigeons befouling the steps into the county courthouse in her home-town of Freeport, Illinois.  Her father was the County Clerk of Stephenson County of which Freeport was County Seat.  The defecating pigeons caused a fecal slime to form on the steps of the courthouse, causing people to slip and fall, a dangerous and unpleasant experience.  Worse yet, when the slime dried in the hot, dry, dog days of summer, it was transformed into swirling clouds of desiccated pigeon feces, drifting throughout the town, a health hazard.


The county maintenance department attempted to solve the problem by feeding the pigeons poisoned corn, Freeport being smack-dab in the middle of the Corn Belt.  This was before PETA and the ethical treatment of animals.  Unintentionally, the town was littered with dead pigeons.  Pigeons fell out of the sky, causing traffic accidents and frightening small children.  The solution begat a worse problem.  It was finally solved when the beautiful old courthouse was torn down and replaced with a new courthouse resembling red brick barn. 


          The sorrow is that the authorities in Freeport couldn’t harvest the pigeon feces for fear of poisoning the town.  Wild pigeons carry a host of harmful diseases; however, bird feces in other forms, such as chicken feces and guano, are a marvelous addition to garden fertilizer because of their high nitrogen content.


          Now to be precise, guano is the feces and urine of sea birds, cave dwelling bats, and seals.  The word comes from a Quichuan word meaning “the droppings of seabirds.”  For thousands of years the Andean Indians had mined guano on islands off the coast of Peru.  Its commercial use was discovered by the explorer Alexander von Humboldt in 1802; however, the need for nitrogen outstripped the organic supply.  


In 1909 Fritz Haber developed a process, called fixation, which extracted nitrogen from the atmosphere, turning it into liquid ammonia which among other things is used for fertilizer and for making explosives as in the infamous bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.  Haber also developed chlorine gas which was used by the Germans in World War I, killing over a million people.  Much of the commercial fertilizer sold to gardeners uses fixated nitrogen which means that the nitrogen is without organic matter found in chicken feces and guano.  “Aye, there’s the rub.”

Fritz Haber 

Synthetic garden fertilizer adds nitrogen which is immediately available to the plant, producing rapid results in plant growth and pleasing gardeners who want instant results.  The problem is that it doesn’t add any organic matter so that microorganisms in the soil will gradually consume the remaining organic matter in the soil eventually increasing its salinity and leaving it sterile.  When fertilizer companies advertize quick results from their fertilizer, the fertilizer is synthetic and if used exclusively will impoverish the soil.  Organic nitrogen is slower and longer acting and good for the soil.


As the organic material in the soil is lost, the soil loses its ability to store organic nitrogen.  Also, without organic material the soil will compact, hardening it much like the clay found in our yards.  Once compacted, the soil will more likely erode, and without organic matter it will not hold water well.  The boon of synthetic nitrogen has an unintended consequence. 


Enter our friends, the chickens who eat grain, and eating grain their feces will contain organic matter as well as bountiful supplies of nitrogen.  Chicken droppings are so good for the gardening that they may be too much of a good thing unless they are mixed and aged.  Since chickens defecate and urinate in the same spot, chicken droppings contain lots of salt which need to be dissipated.  Composting chicken droppings takes about six months to produce an effective fertilizer.  One way to tell whether or not the chicken droppings are ready for the garden is when they lose the stink of ammonia.  When it no longer stinks, it’s ready. 


There are two morals to the story: Cultivate friends who raise chickens and don’t fall for fast-fix synthetic fertilizer.  Remember the Tortoise and the Hare.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2013


Dana Prom Smith and Freddi Steele edit Gardening Etcetera.  Smith may be emailed at He blogs at



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