Ten Bird Myths You Probably Think Are True
Birds are a very diverse group of animals, that live all over the world, and because of this we have told a lot of stories about them. They are part of our culture, but sometimes the stories we tell are just that - stories. So how are we to know what's the truth and what is just something one of our great-great-great uncles made up for giggles? Hopefully this article should clear some things up...
1) Owls are wise.
Recent graduates all seem to get at least one owl from family and friends to congratulate them for their achievements. They are depicted on cards and cakes wearing the graduation gowns, glasses, and caps. We've all heard it - owls are wise. But why do we think that? What's so special about owls? As it turns out - not much. In fact they make terrible students. We've taught falcons and even eagles to hunt for us, we've all witnessed parrots happily chatting in our own tongue, and we've even trained pigeons to deliver messages. What have we taught owls? Not a thing. They are nearly impossible to teach to do anything, which is why when you see them in wildlife demonstrations all they're doing is sitting on someone's arm, staring at you. Falconers used to use owls almost in the same way criminals use bait dogs today. They'd use them as "decoys" to flush out prey animals that would come out to defend their territory against the defenseless tethered owl. From there falcons would come to the rescue and kill the attackers which would then be cooked up by the human hunters.
Some of us might think owls are smart because their eyes are absolutely enormous and fixated in one spot. There's a reason for this of course. The shape of their eyes don't allow them to rotate like ours, instead they have to turn their head to look at whatever is getting their attention. Their eyes are enormous, leaving far less space for a brain than other species of birds but they do have a purpose. They are very good at seeing in very dark conditions and are one of only a small handful of birds that hunt at night. But maybe we think owls are wise because of the ancient Greeks. The goddess Athena, who was thought to been very intelligent, had a pet owl. In many other cultures owls are seen more as harbingers of death and doom. Personally I'd rather see them as wise than a harbinger of death.
2) Chickens are stupid.
Our prejudices against birds aren't always positive as in the owl's case. Chickens have long had to live with the stigma of being stupid but are they? Having kept them myself I would have to say no. They are actually pretty complex animals. First off they're social animals, gathering in flocks, which gives them a bit of an edge to more reclusive species. You see the more social behaviors you have to learn to get along with others the smarter you have to be and chickens have a fierce hierarchy which means they have to have good memories of who belongs where. When allowed to roam they also are quick to get back to their roots and scratch around finding food in their environment like grass, bugs, various plants, and even prey animals as big as mice and frogs. And since they are food driven and have pretty long attention spans you can also train them to do tricks pretty easy. This video here shows how two chickens were given 5 days to learn how to do an agility course - and they succeeded!
3) Doves are peaceful.
This myth cracks me up because doves are just about the least peaceful birds you can find. Once they reach maturity they will pick a mate and bond with them, which is peaceful... but it's at this time that they start becoming insanely territorial. If for instance you had a pair of doves as pets and decided to add a third - guess again! They will literally kill the new bird and they won't take their time in doing it. These birds are fierce, bloodthirsty, and violent. So why on earth do we consider them symbols of peace? This might be because we never really witnessed their warlike sides, or chose to ignore it, and instead focused on the fact they were intensely devoted monogamous couples that had equal partnerships when raising their young. This made them symbols of love in many cultures and perhaps peace was just a mistranslation of that many generations later.
4) Parrots are only mimicking people.
Parrots have been kept and trained to talk for at least 3,000 years with the ancient Egyptians likely being the first ones to keep them for this purpose. They were of course followed by many parts of Asia, India, and even the Greek and Roman empire. In fact when the Kama Sutra was being written in India it was thought that training a parrot to say sexy things was a great way for men to attract women. Whether or not these ancient peoples felt their parrots were talking, or merely mimicking remains a fact lost to history, but what is known is that during the age of enlightenment there was a real push to separate humans from animals and scientists at the time felt parrots were just great at mimicking people. Today however we're not so sure of this. Yes, parrots absolutely mimic the people around them, with some parrots learning to sound exactly like their owners, but most owners will tell you there's more to the story. I think my first introduction to this was when I was visiting a woman who had an African Gray parrot as well as two boisterous Rottweilers. Of course we were strange to the house and the Rottweilers set off barking, to which the parrot replied by screaming, "SHUT UP AND LIE DOWN!" Was he taught to say this? No. He just knew this is what his owner would yell during barking fits. He still could have been mimicking but research done with Alex the African Grey really burst the bubble on this one. His owner spent years testing him - asking him questions to which he'd answer in English. He was even said to have made up his own word, Yummy Bread, when he was fed cake one day. He never heard the word for cake. Africa Grays are known to do and say things for a reaction from their owners. The same gray that told the dogs to knock it off also had a habit of yelling the name of his owner's daughter. He was apparently deeply amused he could get her to come running whenever he felt like it.
5) Parrots are the only birds that talk.
This is another fun one because it's so very wrong. There are a great many birds that have the ability to talk. Among them are parakeets, mynahs, magpies, ravens, grackles, starlings, blue jays, and crows. However the most amazing mimic is probably the lyre bird of Australia. It incorporates any sound it hears into the songs it sings to attract females. Normally this would be the songs of other birds nearby but brought into a human world they'll start mimicking everything - the shutter of a camera, the sound of a chainsaw as well as the cracking of the tree, as well as voices, car alarms, and human music. Below is a video of one such bird.
6) Turkeys can drown staring up at the rain.
Turkeys are another one of those birds that we eat and I think in order to feel better about eating them we tend to tell ourselves they're intensely stupid creatures that probably won't even notice when they're slaughtered. This of course is not true. Turkeys are not the brightest of birds but they're not dumb enough to stand out in the rain, looking upward, until they drown. If you happen to find a turkey in the rain it'll be doing what all the other birds are doing - either seeking shelter or for the most part ignoring it.
7) Birds are monogamous.
We used to think that all birds were monogamous because we tended to fixate on species that were and held them up as some grand example of how humans should be. For instance doves are monogamous, so they got to be the symbol of love for hundreds of years, but not all birds share this philosophy, in fact they run the gamut as far as their love lives are concerned. Some birds we previously though were monogamous are, well, how shall we put this? Avid cheaters. Yes, that's what they are... sneaky conniving cheaters. They'll pair up with one bird to raise their young but both males and females have been shown to stray when unattached and more attractive birds flutter by. Besides this there are species where only one sex is monogamous like in the case of chickens and rheas. In chickens the hens will stay faithful to one rooster during any particular breeding season but the rooster will service as many hens as he can find. On the flip side rhea ladies will carouse around looking for the male with the most attractive nest, which she'll immediately lay eggs in. The strange thing about this is the eggs won't be fathered by the male she's leaving them with, the guy she's trusting to raise the brood 100% on his own. Instead he'll be raising her last lover's offspring and her future lover will be raising his. Where does mom fit into all this? Nowhere, she has no interest in the eggs once they're laid. So as you can see birds are not as pious as you might think.
8) Birds are real "birdbrains."
Birdbrain - it's been a nasty thing to be called for a very long time. However we don't really know where this phrase comes from or why people may have started using it. There is a theory that it is just a take on the fact that birds have very small brains compared to ourselves so someone who is "bird brained" might not be the sharpest crayon in the box. That being said birds have shown remarkable intelligence. Ravens have even been able to solve multi-step puzzles, something even some humans would really struggle with, and it's not just in a laboratory setting. One raven made a living catching fish, well stealing fish is more like it. He witnessed a man boring holes in the ice and leaving a lure attached to a bell in the water. Eventually he learned when the bell started ringing there was fish to be had and he'd pull the fish up by the lure and fly off with it. Think this sounds crazy, here's some other amazing ravens strutting their stuff...
9) Ostriches bury their heads in the sand.
Personally I blame Warner Brothers for this one but the common tale might have been much older. The idea that ostriches bury their head in the sand when facing danger is - well - completely bogus. When an ostrich senses it might be in trouble it'll run, not sit around hiding its head. The only thing that might explain this is the fact ostriches dig out nests in sand, but this is a bit of a stretch....
10) Storks deliver human babies.
OK so not many of you believe this anymore. I am sure if you're reading this article you probably know that storks don't fly around dropping off babies but you might wonder how such a weird story came to be in the first place. It all comes down to timing. Back in the Victorian era there was probably nothing more scandalous and uncomfortable to talk about with your children than the birds and the bees... so someone noticed that the storks that spent their summers in England had a tendency of migrating elsewhere for about nine months out of the year, the perfect block of time anything would need to create a human baby. So that's that. Storks are in charge of the babies and mom's just fallen too hard for biscuits and pickles and whatnot. Stop asking questions Junior!
And so there you have it... Owls aren't really wise, doves aren't really peaceful, very few birds are actually monogamous, and storks don't actually deliver babies. Now that I have burst your bubble I shall be off! I hope you've enjoyed your visit!
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