Myths about animals that are just not true
“Don’t believe everything you hear,” a phrase usually used for stories about humans, can also be applied to some animal anecdotes.
To be clear – there are many animals that have truly amazing traits which make for remarkable aspects of their lives. However, thanks to centuries of tale-telling, some of these characteristics have been fabricated, others have been misunderstood, and a few have just been plain old made up. What follows are a few falsehoods and some other not-exactly-true traits that have become linked to animals that are seen in Missouri all or at least part of the year.
Belief: Human touch leaves a scent on a baby bird that may cause the mother to abandon it: Not true. Most birds have a poor sense of smell and couldn’t detect human scent on their young. However, that doesn’t give us the green light to cuddle every baby bird we find in spring. Young birds can have mites that they could pass on to human handlers and excessive disturbance of young may cause a parental bird to abandon her brood and try another nesting attempt in a safer place. If cats or other dangers can’t be kept away from a young flightless bird you find, move it quickly to a safer location (in the same area where it was found), then let bird parental care continue.
Belief: Daddy longlegs deliver a venomous bite: Another big nope. These arachnids, also called harvestmen, do not have venom and their mouth parts aren’t strong enough to break human skin. Much of the “biting” they do is actually beneficial to humans – they feed on decomposing plant and animal matter and prey on several types of invertebrates, including aphids that can be garden and crop pests.
Belief: Owls can turn their heads in a complete circle: Owls cannot turn their heads in a 360-degree circle, but the truth behind this myth is still remarkable. An owl’s range of head motion is approximately 270 degrees. For comparison, a human’s range of head motion is between 160 and 180 degrees (a 180-degree range means you’d be able to line your nose up with either shoulder). Unlike humans, an owl’s eyes are fixed in their sockets – they can’t move their eyes from side-to-side. So, as a compensation, they’ve developed a greater head-turning ability.
Belief: Raccoons like clean food, that’s why they wash it before eating it: This is another case where fact is more interesting than fiction. Raccoons have extremely sensitive front feet and they appear to get more tactile information when their paws are wet than when they are dry. As a result, when water is available, raccoons often wet their food and turn it over repeatedly with their front paws before eating it. Experts believe they’re not washing their food, they’re examining it.
Belief: There is something unsettling or unstable about a loon: In defense of all loons that migrate through Missouri in fall and spring and provide interesting bird sightings, let’s get something straight: “Crazy as a loon” was a phrase long before European explorers and settlers ever set eyes on this North American bird. The word “loon” that applies to an unstable person has been in use since the 15th century and comes from the Middle English word “loun.” (Middle English was a form of the English language spoken from the Norman conquest until the late 15th century.) Originally, a loon was a rogue, but this definition was later broadened to define a mentally unstable person. A loon’s eerie-sounding call and its awkward gait on land (it’s much better at swimming than walking) probably gave people reasons to connect the bird with the word, but there’s nothing unstable or deranged about this large swimming bird. On the contrary, this bird’s call has become synonymous with outdoors splendor in parts of the northern U.S. and Canada where it’s found.
Belief: The bald eagle got its name because it’s light-colored head gives it a “bald” appearance: While we’re on the subject of outdated English words, here’s another one – “balde.” That Old English word, which means “white,” is the source of the name “bald eagle.” Thus, the name means “white-headed eagle” and has nothing to do with any appearance of baldness that a white-feathered head on top of a dark-feathered body may give to this bird, which can be seen throughout much of Missouri in winter.
A great way to learn about other things that are true about Missouri wildlife is to go to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website at mdc.mo.gov.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.