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Walk Softly – You ‘Mythed’ the Point

by Geoffrey Carpentier

I thought it might be fun to explore some popular misconceptions about animals and the environment. Is it fact or fiction? Myth or the truth? Let’s see …

Myth: Touch a baby bird and it will assuredly be abandoned.

This is not true, as birds are tenacious in caring for their young. The amount of energy it takes to raise a baby is shockingly high. Think of the robin which nests beside your house or the chickadee which lives in your yard. All become habituated to us because we don’t harm them – at least not on purpose. That’s not to say, you should run out and touch every baby bird you see, that would never be the right thing to do. However, if you did have to intervene to protect a baby bird, rest assured the parent will care for the baby once you’re gone. We may believe birds can smell humans, who have touched their babies, but this is not correct. Birds generally have a poor sense of smell and none of them are triggered by human odours.

The inadvertent touching of birds or nests is very different than purposely disturbing a nest. For example, aggressively touching a nest or looking in to see the babies with some frequency, or moving branches to get a better look or take a picture can assuredly lead to abandonment of the nest. Disturbance triggers reactions, akin to a predator: birds can sometimes equate the persistence of zealous humans to this type of intrusion.

Myth: Male animals don’t help with nest chores or baby rearing.

Many males are actively involved in nest protection and in some cases even build the nest and feed the babies. In some species, such as phalaropes (a type of sandpiper) or jacanas (a tropical wetland bird), the males do all the caring for the young, until such time as they are fledged and on their own. In Canada, the murres (a type of sea bird) share nest duties but it is the male who takes the babies, once they leave the nest, and swims with it for over 1000 kms to the wintering grounds, while the female is off in another area resting and foraging. The famous Emperor Penguin is a classic example where the males take the first shift, in freezing temperatures, when the females goes off to feed for over two weeks. He cares for and protects the single egg, at his own peril, until the female finally returns, and then he trundles off for food.

Pipefish and seahorses take it to an even greater extent, just before she leaves, the female transfers her mature eggs into the male’s brood pouch, where they are fertilized and eventually develop into free swimming babies. This pouch contains a placenta, like a typical female would have, thus supporting the growth and development of baby seahorses. By the way, 100-200 babies can be raised by a single dad.

Myth: Goldfish have a five-second memory.

Contrary to this common misconception, they actually can remember things for about three months. A study at Plymouth University, in the US., proved they could understand and remember basic commands for quite a long time (in fish years that is!). Part of the study even demonstrated they have a concept of time, as the fish were trained to come for food, at a specific time of day, and had to push a lever to get their food. At meal times the fish came, just before the allotted feeding time, and nudged the lever to get their meal. If they came too early, pressing the lever didn’t give them food. Smart cookies.

Myth: Camels store water in their humps.

Camel humps are an adaptation which helps the animals survive, when resources are low, but they aren’t meant to carry water. Their humps are actually for fat storage, which is consumed when food is scarce. Camels can go for a long time without rehydrating, but the extra water, up to 75 liters at a time, is stored in their bloodstream, not their humps. More mythical wisdom to come, in a future column.

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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