This is all you usually see of a shitepoke. They’re shy.


My father had stories he’d tell, time and time again, and one of them was from his one-room schoolhouse when he was a farm boy in Iowa. The teacher asked the kids to make a list of all the birds they knew, and they were busy scratching away with their pencils when one boy raised his hand and asked, “Ma’am, how do you spell “shitepoke?”

Dad would always laugh, sometimes with a little snort, when he hit the punchline on that story. And I would laugh too, but I never quite got what was so funny about the story. I thought it was quaint that a child would ask the teacher to spell a colloquial name of a bird—“shitepoke” is an old country name for a heron. Kind of a funny name. I wondered about it then, and I’ve been wondering about it until just today.

I spent the day in my little canoe, drifting along on Seneca Lake and Wolf Run, messing about with herons. I got close to two green herons and three great blues, banging away with my 300 mm. lens, trying to get a decent photograph. The herons were less than thrilled with my attentions. One of my sharper photos was this one.

It is a dark but otherwise o.k. portrait of a Green Heron, only slightly compromised by the giant dollop of fish emulsion exiting its cloaca.

I looked at that photo, thinking at first the white thing was a branch, and when I realized what I’d photographed, I burst out laughing. And, perhaps the recipient of a cosmic tap on the shoulder by my Dear Old Dad, I started to think about the name, “shitepoke.” Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the derivation of “shite.” It’s a polite way to pronounce it, to make the i long, but it’s still feces. And poke? What IS a shitepoke? And suddenly, like a bolt, it hit me that  “poke” is an archaic word for a sack or a bag. Pig in a poke. So “shitepoke” means “sh-tsack.” Aggggh!

Anyone who’s ever flushed a heron and watched it fly away, a streamer of white trailing out behind it, knows what a descriptive name that is. “Chalkline” is another colloquial name for a heron. Shitepoke. I….love….it.

I sat alone in my canoe in the quiet little cove, laughing until I made the boat rock, laughing until the ripples spread out around me, and I felt my daddy right there, laughing with me. I’ve been trying for most of my 50 years to figure out what was so funny about that story. DOD, I finally got it.


Poop Week is a week of themed posts on 10,000 Birds that cover the intersection of poop and birding, a fertile precinct if there ever was one.  Rather than just discuss the horror of a pigeon dropping droppings on someone’s head we decided to really get down the nitty-gritty details of poop, to the point where it is squishing up between our toes.  Not only is Poop Week a fascinating way to spend seven days in June it is also a serious attempt to elevate the level of discourse in the bird blogosphere, which, as we all have no choice but to admit, is far too low.  Enjoy, and make sure to wipe up afterwards, would you?


Written by Julie
Julie Zickefoose is an artist, naturalist and writer specializing in natural history. Her writing is based on keen observation of animal and human behavior, and she likes to interweave solid natural history information with larger philosophical themes to challenge and inspire the reader. Julie contributes three-minute natural history commentaries to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She illustrates her books and magazine articles with her own sketches and watercolor paintings. Letters from Eden (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) will soon be followed by a memoir about the birds she has raised, healed, studied and followed throughout her life. She lives at Indigo Hill, an 80-acre wildlife sanctuary in Appalachian Ohio with her husband, Bill Thompson III, their children Phoebe and Liam, and their Boston terrier, Chet Baker.