In our current world, the internet is the main source of news and information for most people. The access to information on just about any subject is instantly available at our fingertips. However, this doesn’t mean that we can trust everything we read online. As with every subject, or area of expertise, there is false information in circulation and the world of birds is no exception. I’d like to take some time to go over common bird myths and misconceptions and help clear them up for the sake of the birds.
Bird Feeder/Bird House Myths
- Myth #1 – Bird feeders in the fall disrupt migrating bird behaviors. Birds will migrate regardless of the availability of food at a bird feeder. Most species migrate based on the weather, daylight, and their genetic instincts and use these as cues, not the availability of food. Stocked bird feeders during fall migration is actually a benefit as it offers individuals a valuable energy boost to help them through their long migration routes.
- Myth #2 – Feeding birds makes them dependent on human handouts. While birds may make local bird feeders a regular stop in their daily foraging route, many studies have shown that wild birds only get about 25% of their food from feeders. They may choose feeders for convenience, but if feeders are empty, they can easily find other food sources.
- Myth #3 – You should avoid leaving warm water in your birdbath when temperatures go below freezing because birds will bathe and freeze to death from wet and iced up feathers. This makes sense and I see where people are coming from when they believe this claim, however, don’t underestimate the intelligence and instincts of birds. They will drink from a heated birdbath in winter, but most individuals will avoid bathing in the water when the temperature is below freezing to avoid getting wet feathers that lead to frozen feathers.
- Myth #4 – It is important to take birdhouses down during the winter because birds won’t use them, but other creatures will use them. The reality is quite the opposite! Birdhouses can offer a great roosting shelter for birds in the winter months and species such as Eastern Bluebirds will pack into birdhouses like sardines to keep warm during especially cold nights.
- Myth #5 – Birds feet stick to metal feeders. Even though human fingers may get stuck to cold metal in the winter, bird’s feet are not the same. Their feet are well protected from cold metal as they lack sweat glands in their feet that would produce moisture to freeze to metal. Furthermore, their legs and feet are equipped with a specialized scaly like tissue that has low blood flow in order to minimize cold damage.
- Myth #6 – Peanut butter at bird feeders lodges in the throats of birds and causes them to choke. Many birdwatchers with feeders believe that peanut butter is sticky and will glue beaks and throats shut, killing the bird. This has never been found to be true, and peanut butter is a very nutritious offering for birds. It is high in calories and fat which is great for energy.
- Myth #7 – Birds will starve if you suddenly stop feeding them in the winter. While bird feeders can offer a quick and easy food source for birds during the winter months, the feeder is not the only source of food during this unforgiving season. If this were true, a lot of birds wouldn’t survive the winter as there wouldn’t be enough food from feeders to go around. Studies have shown that chickadees, a common winter feeder visitor, only get about 25% of their daily food intake from feeders.
- Myth #8 – Red dye is an important part of hummingbird food. Yes; hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, but this does not mean it needs to be in their food. Most hummingbird feeders have a lot of red on them to attract the hummers, so it is an unnecessary addition to the sugar water food.
- Myth #9 – You shouldn’t feed birds in the summer. While there are a lot more natural food sources during summer months than winter, that doesn’t mean you should stop offering food to birds. The spring and summer months are when birds are extremely busy caring for their mates and nestlings. The food from a feeder is a supplemental resource for busy birds that are competing with local individuals to care for their young.
- Myth #10 – Birdseed never goes bad! Like most food, birdseed can in fact spoil if not stored properly! Seeds are a magnet to rodents, and often become moldy and dried out after a long time storing.
Bird Behavior/Biology Myths
- Myth #1 – If I touch a baby bird that has fallen from the nest, the parents will abandon it. This is an extremely widespread myth that many people still believe. Birds have wonderful sight and hearing, but their sense of smell is very minimally developed. Except for a few species, most are not able to detect specific odors. There is no evidence that common backyard species like Robins can sense human scent on one of their young.
- Myth #2 – Owls can spin their heads completely around. This is a common misconception that has survived thanks to television and movies. All birds possess a greater range of motion of their heads that swivel on their spine than mammals have. For owls, their blood vessels, ligaments and muscles keep their head from spinning completely around. In reality, their range is about 270 degrees which is still pretty impressive in my opinion.
- Myth #3 – A singing bird is a happy bird. As humans, we tend to anthropomorphize animal behavior. People assume that a bird that is singing means that they are happy. However, singing in birds isn’t as emotionally driven as we might think. It all comes down to reproduction and the ultimate goal of passing on one’s genes. Males of certain species can sing aggressively to warn nearby males to stay out of their territory. Males also sing to attract mates, as females often prefer males who sing more complex and varied songs.
Myth #4 – Birds are unintelligent. Thanks to the phrase bird brain, many people assume that birds are unintelligent, dull creatures. However, for many species this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Certain bird species are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, and we will actually dive into greater detail on bird intelligence in a future blog post. While their brains may look simple compared to mammals, that doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent. A variety of bird species have been known to create and use tools, recognize human faces, and recognize relatives they haven’t seen in years.
- Myth #5 – Ostrich bury their heads in the sand. Despite this popular saying used when someone is avoiding conflict, Ostrich do not stick their heads in the sand when stressed. This myth started with Greek historian Diodorus Siculus who also claimed that Ostrich had cloven hooves and flung stones at predators; claims that are also extremely incorrect and a bit comical. In reality, Ostrich will lay close to the ground to hide from predators and from a distance it could appear that the ostrich is burying their head in the sand.
- Myth #6 – Penguins only live in cold climates. While the photos we often see of penguins show a snowy habitat, there are penguins that live in warmer climates. Species such as the Humboldt, Magellenic, and Fairy penguins live in non-snowy ecosystems. Penguins are known to live on the southern edges of Africa and Australia, as well as the Galapagos islands near the equator.
Hopefully you learned something new about birds through my avian blog version of MythBusters. Tune in next week to learn more about avian intelligence with a focus on Corvids (if you’re scratching your head at this word, read next weeks blog!).