Field Research

Dirt-Eating Parrots: Squawk, It's the Clay, It's the Clay!

Pulse of the Planet

by Jim Metzner

amazon parrots eating calcium bentonite clayCould studying the eating habits of parrots be used to help save human lives? I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. James Gilardi, a researcher with the Oceanic Society, spends a lot of time in southeastern Peru, observing birds such as these blue-headed parrots that we're listening to right now. The parrots often congregate at riverbanks to eat clay, and Gilardi says that it's good for them, because it neutralizes toxins in the rest of their diet.

"What we're finding out is that birds and other mammals are able to eat soil, and that allows them to be able to eat foods that are fairly toxic. Based on the same mechanisms of how that works for parrots, consuming soil for humans turns out to be a really valuable thing."

In fact, it's common for people in many cultures to eat soil...Gilardi says that this is not a custom to look down upon, because it seems to have a range of healthful benefits. Clay is eaten by pregnant women in many parts of the world, possibly because it counters nausea and may protect the fetus from toxins in the mother's diet. According to Gilardi, consuming clay can relieve all kinds of problems in the digestive tract. In fact, it's the basis for common medications such as Kaopectate. And he says that clay would be a simple and effective way to treat one of the most urgent international health problems - the diarrhea and dehydration that affects many of the world's children.

"Those of us who are studying clay-eating in mammals and birds, we'd love to see our results applied to solving this widespread problem of childhood diarrhea, which continues to kill millions of children a year."

To hear about our CD, please visit Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.

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