I receive all kinds of questions from around the world via my website, www.ornithology.com. I have been contacted by newspapers, magazines, radio and TV shows, Hollywood producers, authors, artists, scientists, architects, and even a fighter pilot in Iraq, asking about some aspect of birds. Mostly they are straightforward questions about identification, bird houses, feeding, behavior, diseases, etc., but occasionally the questioner alludes to some old wives’ tale such as that of touching a bird’s nest or eggs or young causing the parents to abandon the nest or even kill the young. Or the myth about hummingbirds migrating by hitching rides on the backs of geese. There are lots of folkloric stories about owls or ravens being bad omens, storks delivering babies, and blackbirds nesting on your roof to bring good luck. Legend has it that the robin received its red breast from trying to remove the bloody thorns from Christ’s head at the Crucifixion. Then there is the story of young eaglets who, trying their first flight unsuccessfully, are caught on the back of one of their parents and ferried back to the nest. This myth apparently comes from a story in the bible (Deuteronomy 32:10,11).
One yarn I have heard a lot lately is that eagles shed their talons and beak and feathers at about thirty to forty years of age, renewing their life in a 150 day process, and then living to the ripe old age of 70 or 100. This apparently is just an e-rumor, generated by someone and spread through cyberspace. We are warned not to throw rice at weddings because if birds eat it they will explode. If this were true, the rice fields would be full of burst birds. We are also told not to feed white bread to birds because it is bad for them. If the birds ate only white bread, it would not be a good diet, but feeding them white bread at the local park is only a small portion of their diet and certainly won’t hurt them. However, feeding them cracked corn is probably a better idea. We hear that some birds mate for life. Although some larger birds like geese and eagles have long term pair bonds, none mate for life. Their mating behavior is as erratic as ours. How about the one about red dye in hummingbird feeders causes cancer, liver disease, etc? There is no evidence at all that red dye causes any problems for hummingbirds. But one of the most interesting fables I have heard is that the only sound that does not echo is a duck’s quack. Why people believe such nonsense is beyond me, but this story pops up regularly. First, what duck? There are dozens of species of ducks and only a few, such as the Mallard, make a sound that can realistically be described as a quack. Second, what acoustic properties would make a sound impervious to an echo? There is no conceivable reason why any duck should or could create an unechoable sound. Although scientists usually don’t bother trying to refute nonsense like this (we leave it to “Myth Busters”), there was a study in England that did just that. You can read more here. As Judge Judy says “if it doesn’t make sense, it isn’t true.”