On April 1, 2015

The Outside Story: April Fool! Nature myths and misbeliefs

By Michael J. Caduto

Walking through the woods on a cool spring morning, I saw a barred owl in an old maple tree. I circled the owl three times from a distance. Its head kept turning to follow me, tracking my movements with three complete revolutions.

One of the owl’s chicks had fallen from the nest, so I climbed the tree and placed the chick back in it. Then the owl flew up and pushed the chick out of the nest onto the ground, where it lay in a pile of melting snow.

I noticed that the maple was the biggest tree in sight, so it had to be the oldest. A rusty sap bucket hung from the tree on a tap that had probably been forgotten some 15 years ago. The bucket, which had originally been placed four feet off the ground, was now ten feet high, having moved up as the tree grew.

A cute baby skunk was hiding in a hollow under the tree. I stuck my head in to have a good look, because I knew that immature skunks couldn’t spray. Then I saw a porcupine, but when I drew closer, it shot several quills at me, narrowly missing my neck.

Walking home, I heard a bear off in the distance. It had just emerged from hibernation and was hooting to find a mate.

I passed a fallen tree and contemplated how it must have landed silently because no one had been there to hear it.

When I got home, I looked at the calendar and noticed the date: April 1.

This fictional account is spun of common misbeliefs that are handed down through the generations with surprising tenacity. Here are some common myths, followed by the corresponding truths. (Many thanks to the staff of the Springfield office of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources for sharing their favorite nature misconceptions.)

“An owl can turn its head 360 degrees.”

While it looks like an owl can spin its head around at will, in fact the head only moves up to 270 degrees in either direction. The structure of an owl’s neck vertebrae and specially adapted blood vessels enable these extreme motions. (Red-tailed hawks can turn their head nearly as far owls.)

“If you touch a baby bird that has fallen from its nest, and then put it back, the parents will reject it and let it die.”

Adults will not abandon a chick just because a person touched it. If you find a chick on the ground, search overhead for the nest and gently place the chick back in the nest. Many “baby birds” found on the ground are really fledglings who are learning to fly. If a juvenile bird has young feathers, is awkwardly flying near the ground, and can perch on your finger, then place it on a nearby branch and the parents will find it.

“The biggest trees are the oldest trees.”

Growth rate depends on a combination of genes and growing conditions. Some species (white pine, cottonwood) grow quickly, while others (white oak, hickory) grow more slowly. A red oak 16 inches in diameter that is growing in fertile soil with plenty of sunlight might be 50 years old, while a red oak of similar age that is competing with other trees in poor growing conditions might only be 10 inches across. A shagbark hickory growing nearby that is the same size could be 75 years old.

“A nail driven into a tree moves up as the tree grows.”

Trees only grow upward from the tips of the branches. A nail or sugaring tap driven or drilled into the side of a tree will remain at the same height over time. The bole [trunk or stem] of a tree grows outward, so eventually the nail or hole will be engulfed by wood.

“Baby skunks can’t spray.”

Skunks can spray to a certain extent within a few weeks and can spray at full force at about three months old.

“Porcupines can shoot their quills.”

A porcupine does not have ballistic quills. If you touch a porcupine, its sharp quills may penetrate your skin and separate from the animal. It’s also capable of thwacking predators with its tail.

“Bears hoot.”

Black bear cubs moan, coo, mew, purr, bawl, and make gulping sounds. Adults grunt, bellow and woof. On rare occasions, such as when cornered, bears growl. But they don’t hoot. Owls hoot.

“If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear, it makes no sound.”

Maybe. Maybe not. You’re on your own for this one.

Michael J. Caduto is an author, ecologist, and storyteller who lives in Reading, Vermont. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: wellborn@nhcf.org

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