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Bird Myths: Penguins Fall Over When Airplanes Fly Over Their Heads

Urban legends about birds abound, but one of the most bizarre stories involves penguin and planes.

According to some pilots who were stationed in the Falkland Islands during the Falklands War, they devised a game in which they would slowly fly over a group of penguins. The penguins—fascinated by the large, loud plane—would watch it fly over, follow the plane with their heads, and topple over onto their backs.

Wait, what?


That’s right. Many people actually claim this happened. Even the Audubon Society Magazine apparently talked to someone about the phenomenon. Here’s the widely spread excerpt from Audubon Magazine:

A Mexican newspaper reports that bored Royal Air Force pilots stationed on the Falkland Islands have devised what they consider a marvelous new game. Noting that the local penguins are fascinated by airplanes, the pilots search out a beach where the birds are gathered and fly slowly along it at the water’s edge. Perhaps ten thousand penguins turn their heads in unison watching the planes go by, and when the pilots turn around and fly back, the birds turn their heads in the opposite direction, like spectators at a slow-motion tennis match. Then, the paper reports, “The pilots fly out to sea and directly to the penguin colony and overfly it. Heads go up, up, up, and ten thousand penguins fall over gently onto their backs.

So, it this just a silly myth or is it based in reality? As of right now, all signs point to myth.

Bird Myths: Swallows Survive Winter Burrowed in Mud


When temperatures start to drop, birds handle the transition in different ways. Some travel to warmer temperatures while others tough it out. Some birds even burrow into the mud to escape the cold, right? Wrong.

For thousands of years, people have believed the myth that birds (swallows specifically) will burrow into the mud and essentially hide away for the winter. Most people nowadays know that no birds hibernate, but the myth still persists in some minds.

So where did this theory come from?

Way back in the 4th century BC, Aristotle was one of the first people to delve into the topic of bird migrations. As a naturalist, he noted that birds traveled to warmer temperatures during wintertime. This was pretty revolutionary at the time because no one had ever written it down (it’s unclear whether it was already a widely held belief).

Bird Myths: Owls Can Turn Their Heads 360°

We’ve all seen the cartoons: an owl follows an object by spinning its head 360°. But is it really possible or is it a myth?

The simple answer is that it’s a myth. However, owls do have the ability to turn their heads an amazing 270° in either direction. Since owls can turn their heads 270° in both directions, it’s very possible that an owl will look like it’s turning its head in a complete circle if you catch it at a certain angle.

Here’s a GIF I made from a YouTube video where you can see this phenomenon pretty clearly:

Even though owls can’t technically turn their heads 360°, they can get pretty darn close.

So why and how do owls do this?

Bird Myths: Bags of Mixed Seed is Bad for Birds

mixed birdseed
A while back, I wrote a post based on some comments made by Audubon’s Director of Development in Conn. The gist of his comment was that cheap bags of mixed seed are not great for birds because they won’t eat much of it.

However, some people now have the wrong idea that bags of mixed seed are not only wasteful but also bad for birds. We’re here to bust that myth.

The truth is that bags of mixed can be an excellent option for birds, as long as you know exactly what you’re buying.

Avoid the cheap stuff

Since birds can be picky, those bargain bags of mixed bird seeds tend to be packed with filler seed. That means a vast majority of the seed will end up wasted on the ground, attracting a variety of unwanted critters and pests.

Bird Myths: Picking Up a Bird Feather is Illegal

You may have heard the urban legend. One day a guy is hiking along a trail and he spots a gorgeous-looking feather on the ground. He picks it up and carries it around in his hand, looking at it with wonder and curiosity. That’s when he’s arrested and fined $100,000 for possessing a feather illegally.

Sounds preposterous right?

Wrong. While the details of the urban legend may be exaggerated, it is in fact illegal to collect certain bird feathers thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

The nearly 100-year-old act was put into place to protect birds that migrated between the United States and Canada because of a decline in bird populations. Hunting was fairly rampant because the fashion during that time featured hats adorned with bird feathers.

The treaty makes it unlawful to hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell migratory birds. The statute extends to any bird part, including feathers, eggs, and nests.

Do Birds Have a Sense of Smell?


Turkey Vulture by Tim Sträter

When we try to understand the world around us, we see it through the lens of humans. It’s completely natural to do because it’s how we interact with the world, but it can be problematic when trying to get an accurate vision of the things around us. This could not be truer than figuring out how birds interact with the world.

For example, the sense of smell plays a pretty big part of our daily lives; we use smell to tell whether something is rotten, when there is danger (smoke or fire) and other useful things. But for many bird species, the sense of smell is fairly insignificant.

Yes, birds have a sense of smell and recent studies say that it’s more developed than we had previously thought, but it still doesn’t play as big of a part of their lives as humans or other animals.

All birds have some sort of olfactory system that gives them the sense of smell, but it’s very difficult to decipher when and what they use it for. Even John James Audubon conducted experiments to see whether vultures use smell to find their meals.

In his experiment, he put out a painting of a dead sheep and found that the vultures tugged at the canvas. The next time he hid dead meat next to the painting, but the vultures still tugged at the canvas instead of the nearby hidden meat. He felt this was enough to disprove the theory that birds don’t have a strong sense of smell.

Bird Myths: Eagles Can Carry Off Small Children

Fake eagle snatching babyBy now, you’ve probably seen the video. A man is recording a Golden Eagle flying around at the park when, all of a sudden, it swoops down and picks up a small child in its talons. The video is the perfect example of something going viral on the Internet and a perfect example of computer wizardry.

This amazing recording, which has garnered nearly 2 million views and is embedded below in case you haven’t seen it, is undeniably fake. The video was cleverly created by students at Montreal’s National Animation and Design Centre as a project. Needless to say, many people believed it was real and still believe it.

Even though this sensational video is a hoax, the real question is whether this could actually happen. While it’s hard to ever say something could never happen, stories of eagles carrying off small children are largely myths.

Slate did a great job looking at some of the past cases of birds apparently flying off with babies. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

It’s not common. Many attacks by eagles on children have been reported over the years, but it’s hard to tell how many are accurate. Headlines from the New York Times alone include “Eagle Seizes Little Girl,” “Eagle Tries to Carry Off Scottish Baby From Mother,” “Father Shoots a Bird With Infant in Its Talons,” and “Eagle Carries Off Child.”

The article rightly points out that most of these are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when people were less skeptical and quicker to believe tales. If you look at the birds found in North America, none of them are really large enough to carry more than a few pounds during flight nor are they known to attack humans. The largest bird in North America—the California Condor—is a scavenger, so it would never try to pick up a live baby, especially when there are adults around.

Bird Myths: Gum on the ground kills birds

Even though the Internet is an amazing resource with answers to nearly any question you could ever ask, it’s still a medium that is susceptible to the spread of misinformation, especially on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The image to the right of a bird next to its deceased mate has been making the rounds on Facebook with an encouragement for people to share it. It states that chewing gum on the ground is appealing to birds because it looks like bread, but ingesting it causes the birds to die.

Let’s tackle this quickly spreading image.

First, any birder could tell you the birds in the image are barn swallows—which are insectivores—so they wouldn’t try to eat gum in the first place. Second, the image is actually from a series of touching pictures that spread around the Internet a couple of years ago displaying a swallow grieving over its mate.

As for the claim on the image, while it’s hard to outright dismiss anything as impossible, experts have suggested chewing gum itself would not kill a bird, according to

When should I take down my bird feeders?

Now that summer is nearly here and there’s more than enough natural food, it’s time to stop feeding your backyard birds, right?


That’s not to say birds are completely dependent on bird feeders for their food, however. The vast majority of a bird’s diet is received from natural sources, but keeping your bird feeder up year-round is great for a number of reasons.

The first and main reason to keep your feeders up is so you can enjoy the birds. You might see this as a selfish reason, but bird feeding is a typically selfless act where you get rewarded by seeing some amazingly beautiful birds fluttering in your backyard. If you take down feeders during spring or fall, you might miss the most colorful species passing through your area during migration. Don’t deprive yourself!

It also makes life easier for birds. Birds don’t depend on your backyard for all their food—even in the winter—but it makes eating so much easier. So, when they’re mating or feeding young, having a source of food nearby helps them out.

There’s also a prominent myth that remains in the birding community that feeding birds in fall will prevent them from migrating. As I explained in a previous post, birds work on a biological level and will not be dissuaded from migrating to warmer temperatures because there’s a free buffet.

Bird Myths: Hummingbirds migrate on the backs of geese

The imagery is undeniably cute and inspiring. Hummingbirds resting on the backs of large geese as they soar high through the sky en route to warmer temperatures, one species helping out another. Even though this would be something I would love to see in real life, it’s simply not true.

Occasionally, I tackle some of the prominent myths about birds, such as feeders stop birds from migrating, a mother will reject its young if a person touches it and bread is a good snack for birds at the pond. After writing on amazing things about hummingbirds and it being that time of year, I thought I’d tackle this myth.

It’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly when and how this myth started, but it may have to do with the fact that there’s little data about the migration of hummingbirds. John J. Audubon thought this as well. I guess it also seems pretty preposterous for a tiny bird to fly such long distances, but they do manage to do it themselves.

There are a few things that compete with this theory though. First, geese don’t fly south far enough to satisfy the warm temperatures hummingbirds love. Second, geese don’t stop at places where hummingbirds can eat, so the journey will leave hummingbirds without any food (not that they don’t make the journey themselves without much food). Third, there would be some visual evidence that it’s happened, but no one has ever seen this firsthand.

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