Birds and Folklore

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Bald Eagle

I’m not sure I know the difference between myths and folklore, but it seems that myths are deep-seated, mystical, significant stories and folklore is a narrower and less significant collection of beliefs. And then there is just boloney.

Like the old saw that says you should not throw rice at weddings because birds will eat it and then explode. If you think about it, this makes zero sense. First, birds are pests in rice fields because they eat rice; have you ever seen a Red-winged Blackbird explode? Cooking processed rice takes a long time on the stove and even then, has it ever blown up in your kitchen? But I still hear this.

How about the one that says the only sound that doesn’t echo is a duck’s quack. Too ridiculous to bother refuting. Or how about a 30 year old eagle which goes to a mountaintop, sheds its claws and bill and grows new ones for a new life? Nonsense. And one I hear from India quite a bit is that peahens (female peafowl) get pregnant by drinking the tears of the peacock. Must be a religious thing, I guess.

Now that it’s nesting season, birds are building nests, laying eggs, and raising young around houses. Occasionally a nest is built in a potted plant, over a door, in a gutter, in the garage, or some other awkward place. Or the nest falls down. Or an egg gets ejected from the nest. Or a young bird falls from the nest, or a fledgling jumps down and lands in front of a hungry cat, or some other incident occurs that prompts a concerned homeowner to pick up the egg, replace the nest, capture the young, or whatever. When the homeowner relates this story to me, I’m usually told that they were careful to move things with a shovel, spatula, pot, tongs or some other tool and that they wore rubber or gardening gloves. It’s clear that they believe the old wives’ tale that touching the nest, eggs, or young will cause the parents to abandon the young or even kill them! I even heard this nonsense from a bird rehabilitation center person.

Overall, birds have a poor sense of smell (and taste). Exceptions are seabirds which apparently find food and navigate over the oceans partly due to their ability to smell and New World vultures whose nose helps them find carrion. But most other birds, like songbirds, do not have that ability. So they are not going to abandon their nest because they smell that Neutrogena hand cream you slathered on. Besides, even if they could detect an odd odor, why would they forsake their eggs or young?Birds, like most animals that provide parental care, are not going to put all that time and energy into nest building and egg laying and then leave for such a minor reason. I have handled many eggs and young birds over the years and have never seen a nest abandoned because of me – even though I may have visited the nest every other day for two or three weeks. Of course, I made very quick and cautious visits, as repeated major disturbances can cause parents to leave.

It’s almost always best to leave birds alone to do their thing. But if you really, really have to touch a nest, egg, or young bird, just do it quickly and carefully, with your bare hands, if you like. By the way, if the young bird has some feathers but is still unable to fly, it is most likely a fledgling. It will be fed by its parents on the ground until its feathers grow long enough for flight. This bird jumped out of the nest – a normal thing – so do not put it back. It will simply jump again. Only naked helpless birds should be returned to the nest but they are rarely found viable as a predator or storm probably knocked them out of the nest and are unlikely to survive long. In almost all cases, let nature do its thing.

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