Bird-watching myths

I’ve touched bases a time or two on this subject over the years, but just in case you didn’t grab the brass ring the first time it went by, I’ll jog your memory again.

Fall is my favorite season, and the fall season is generally the time that “myths” start coming out of the woodwork. A myth is like a lie once it gets going, you can’t stop it, especially bird-watching myths. What they have in common is that they are not true. Now days, with the Internet moving “information” around the world at the speed of light, they have taken on a new life. Here’s a few:

Hummingbirds migrate by riding on the backs of geese: This is one of my favorites. The evidence is all anecdotal and it is impossible to track down anyone who has proof. That’s because there is none. Most hummingbirds are long gone before the first geese come down from the Arctic. They don’t eat the same foods. They don’t migrate at the same time. Geese migrate to the gulf. Hummingbirds migrate down through Central America. The minute a goose would land on water, a hummingbird would drown. Any ruby-throated or rufous hummingbird waiting for the goose train to take it to the tropics is in trouble.

Purple Martins eat 2,000 mosquitoes a day: Don’t, don’t write me letters about this. There is very little evidence to prove this is true. Make that none This old “story” is based on a single bird, taken early in the morning over a salt marsh, that had 300 mosquitoes in its belly. Somebody probably extrapolated that it would have eaten at least 2,000 if it had kept it up all day. Truth is, mosquitos are only a small, small part of a purple martins diet. Secondly, mosquitoes are primarily nocturnal. Martins a diurnal (daytime creatures).

Small birds are carried long distances by powerful storms: Possible but highly, highly, highly unlikely. All those who have the misfortune to find themselves doing a Christmas Bird Count on a day when the winds exceed 25 miles an hour, know that high winds do not blow birds around, they ground them. Most birds are well adapted to high winds. Many birds for some unknown reason may migrate or deviate dramatically from their course. But pending the presentation of any proof, any proof at all, the “blown across the country by a gale” theory should be retired.

The swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano: Oh boy, this is a good one. They myth is that the swallows return every year on the same day to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano in Southern California. This myth endures because it mixes the wonders of nature with a bit of religion, but the real reason it persists is that it has become a local industry. Each year, tourists flock to the site, filling motels and cafes and acquiring mementos. This myth is big business. First anyone who knows birds and has watched migration understands that there is no ornithological basis for this story. Neither swallows nor any other birds return exactly the same day every spring. Most years you can predict the return of migrants to within a week – everyone has seen exceptions – but that is as close as you can get. Secondly have you ever been to Capistrano? I have, and surprise, surprise a lot of those swallows never leave Capistrano. California weather is so mild in that area that many swallows never leave, never migrate – they over-winter in Capistrano.

Adult hummingbirds teach their young how to fly: This is simply not the case. Young birds instinctively know how to fly, Flying is easy for them. Landing is the hard part. Hummingbirds cannot walk, run, hop or jump. They have very tiny feet and legs which allows them only to perch. On the other hand, almost all baby birds of all species do not need to be taught how to fly. They instinctively know how. It’s just part of being a bird. I could go on and on. Hummingbirds do not feed on red flowers alone. They will visit blooms all of the sizes, shapes and colors. Same goes for red sugar water. Color additives are not necessary, indeed and in fact, many red dyes may be harmful. Recall the FDA banning some red dyes from human consumption? If it is not good for us, it’s probably not good for hummers either. They don’t need unnatural ingredients.

Keeping feeders up in the fall prevents hummingbirds from migrating south: Let me get another cup of coffee before I answer this one. As colder weather approaches, many people in northerly climes fear that their feeders might entice birds to stick around too late in the season. A hummingbird instinct to migrate is so strong that it doesn’t matter whether feeders are available. Like other migratory birds, hummers grow restless as changes in day length and the angle of the sun occur in spring and fall. Event the most plentiful feeder cannot hold a hummer when the urge to migrate kicks in.

And now have a good weekend.