The Regional Review

Volume II - No. 4

April, 1939


By Daniel B. Beard,
Assistant Wildlife Technician,

At times it is embarrassing to be a naturalist, yet compelled to listen to stories that would make Ananias crawl down in a hole with the supposedly prophetic groundhog. Other professions may be annoyed by their sidewalk superintendents, but nowhere are they as vociferous as the "I-saw-it-with-my-own-eyes-I-tell-you" brand of amateur biologists. It is difficult to decide what alternative to take when someone, who really is intelligent enough not to be so gullible, starts a tall story about wildlife with liberal interjections of the first person singular. Should one gently say, "My friend, you are a liar," or would it be better to just listen and venture a non-committal grunt now and then? Danger lurks in either course. Most burly chaps who saw such and such are quick to resent being told that it is pure fabrication. On the other hand, if one merely listens without comment it might be construed as agreement. So, as a protective measure, it is sincerely requested that none of the tales told here be repeated to members of the wildlife profession as actual, bona fide, personal observations.

A true understanding of natural phenomena based upon recorded fact and intelligent observation is to be preferred to superstition and warped interpretation. New England colonists killed the northern ravens because they were supposed to harbor evil spirits that brought sickness and death to their families and domestic stock. Today, some of our most graceful and beneficial birds are on the borderline of extinction because of the notion that "the only good hawk is a dead hawk". Yet, each mouse-killing hawk is money out of the pocket of the farmer who shoots it. The myriad fables about snakes have so befogged the perceptions of many people that they cannot possibly understand or appreciate the really authentic and interesting facts about the reptiles.

Here are a few of the numerous stories:

Eagles carry off children: One can only speculate on how many golden and bald eagles have been shot in this country because they are supposed to be child-snatchers. Despite every effort of ornithologists to track down a case of an eagle taking a child none has ever been verified. An average-sized golden eagle (the species is larger than the bald eagle) was weighed at 4,664 grams, or about 10.3 pounds, and had a wing area of 6,520 square centimeters. The largest specimens may weigh 14 pounds. The lifting power of their wings is proportionately greater to body size than, for example, in the case of a swan. In any event, these great birds cannot lift more than six or eight pounds--with ten pounds as an absolute maximum. In other words, if a newborn child was left out in the open where a golden eagle could see it, and if that particular eagle was unafraid of human habitations, then it might conceivably carry the baby away.

Milk snakes milk cows: The average length of a fully grown milk snake is less than one yard. If it was fed to capacity with milk, the reptile could hold the astounding amount of about two teaspoonsfuls. Dr. Raymond Ditmars tried to induce captive milk snakes to drink milk, but they preferred water and would touch milk only when "suffering from great thirst." So, even if it was physically possible for the snake to milk a cow, which is most doubtful, it would take a whole battery of them to make any noticeable reduction in the milk supply. It is true that milk snakes are often found around barns. They are there for the commendable purpose of catching mice that eat the farmer's grain and not to tap the cows.

Beavers transport mud on their tails, which they use for trowels: Please do not run to some old nature books or magazines to prove that I am wrong on this one. You will find printed "evidence" that beavers carry mud on their tails and use those conspicuous organs to pat it into place. In fact, if you go through the files of a leading outdoor magazine in the early part of the present century, there will be actual photographs. My only request is to look the pictures over carefully to see how they were faked and, if still in doubt, spend your annual leave at a beaver pond.

It would be logical to suppose that a beaver's broad tail was for other purposes than locomotion. It is flat, attached to the body with some flexibility, and if the beaver house and dam are examined it will be seen that mud is used for chinking. Legend tells us that the beaver is one of the most intelligent animals. Really, its I.Q. must be very low compared to the mammals that live by their wits. The tail is used for steering in water and, like the planes on a submarine, for lifting or depressing the body. It sometimes furnishes a prop for the beaver while it is chewing down a tree and when whacked on the surface of the pond the sound is a danger signal. Mud is transported under the beaver's chin and chinked by rapid, alternate motion of the forepaws, not with the tail.

Beavers can fell trees in predetermined direction: It sometimes happens that when a beaver fells a tree and scuttles out of the way, the tree falls on top of it -- that's why it "scuttles". The beaver is not very accurate when it comes to dropping a tree. Fortunately, trees around a beaver pond tend to lean toward the opening, otherwise more would be "hung up" or felled away from the pond than is the case.

Snakes can sting with their tongues: The only creature than can sting with its tongue is a gossipy female. The forked tongue of the snake is a sensory organ used to acquaint the creature with its surroundings possibly even to the extent of receiving sound vibrations. The tongue is not a "stinger" and is perfectly harmless.

Porcupines shoot their quills at intruders: Some say that the porcupine has offensive and defensive spines or quills. The dermal muscles of the animal are so arranged that when its back is humped the quills stand on end like the hairs on the scruff of any angry dog's back. In this way, a "defensive" pin-cushion protects the body. The quills are well anchored on the creature's head, back, and legs. The tail forms the offensive weapon and the quills are not fastened so tightly, especially toward the end. A swish of the tail will leave quills sticking into whatever it hits - a dog's nose or a person's hand. It is possible that sometimes a few of the quills will come loose of their own volition when the tail is swung very rapidly and actually fly through the air. So, although we cannot state dogmatically that a porcupine never throws its quills, it can be said at least that if it ever does happen the flying quills are purely an accident. The common conception of a "porky" hurling a barrage of quills from all parts of its body is not true.


Owls are blind in the daytime: If you believe this one, go catch yourself an owl some sunny afternoon.

Glass snakes can be broken into pieces that reassemble themselves, or each piece grows into a new individual: It is easy to trace down the origin of this absurd superstition. The glass snake is really a lizard -- family Anguidae, if you happen to be interested. It has lost its crawling appendages, but otherwise resembles others of its kind. Lizard-like, the glass snake's tail can be quickly detached from its body. The function of the removable stern-piece is an excellent protective measure because when the tip comes off it wriggles violently, thus occupying the captor until the "abbreviated" owner can escape. Later another tail will grow, but the lost piece will not develop into a new glass snake.

Snakes have been known to swallow their young to protect them from harm: If this be so, the little snakes are jumping from the frying pan into the fire for once they enter the esophagus of the adult and peristaltic action conveys them to the stomach, it is a sad state of affairs indeed. Of all the snake stories, this one has the greatest number of adherents who say it is an irrefutable fact. It is my guess that the "observations" are made in this manner. A snake is seen and killed with a stick amid a great deal of excitement. After the parent has been dispatched, little baby snakes are seen crawling about. Now, we know from our high school psychology course that human powers of reconstructing incidents that took place during a period of excitement are notoriously poor. A snake was killed that had young inside it: it is said that snakes swallow their young to protect them: therefore this snake swallowed its young. Unconsciously, such reasoning may take place and the observer thinks he saw the young actually enter the parent's mouth. Absurd?--not at all. Such mistakes are often made by the untrained observer. Chances are that the demised parent was a vivaporous female about ready to give birth to its young and the thrashing it received with the stick caused them to be born.

It is possible that an observer may report watching a snake swallow its young and have the snake escape without being killed. The question might be asked: "Are you sure it was its own young that the snake was hiding and that it was not swallowing someone else's brood?" The odds are very much against this story and no herpitologist has ever been able to record it either in the field or among caged specimens.

Barbers are infallible authorities on wildlife: Politics, yes -- wildlife, no.

There are many other well-known "facts" that are not true. Some are absurd while others are misinterpretations of biological facts. The hoop snake is a pure myth, and so is the one about gophers digging their burrows above ground in a dust storm. Take most nature yarns with a grain of salt, especially if they have to do with snakes. If in doubt, consult a well-known book or go and see for yourself. If you go to see, it is probably that you can find out many correct things that are more interesting than fiction.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002