5 Myths of Nature

Nature is full of mysteries. Through scientific discovery, some myths can be dispelled regarding a few of our local critters. Which of these “untruths” have you believed?

Myth: Nocturnal animals are never active in the daytime

An eastern screech owl has its beak open. It is screeching at the camera.

There are at least three animals that prove this myth false. Owls will call to announce their territorial boundaries and even communicate with their mate during the day (usually when it is cloudy, but not always). Just like you may get up for a drink in the middle of the night, raccoons can be seen in the day going to their favorite watering hole. And coyotes have no rhyme or reason to their sleep schedule. Each individual will consider the availability of prey, the type of habitat and even human activity within their home range to decide what their preferred “shift” will be.

Myth: If you touch a baby bird, the parents will not accept their youngster any longer, and may go as far as push it out of the nest

Three goslings follow their mom as they cross a paved trail.

The crazy thing is this idea is based on a bird being able to smell the human’s scent on their offspring when, in fact, most birds do not have the ability to smell. (The exception is vultures, which break this “rule” by being able to smell a dead animal while soaring above the earth, even as high as one mile from the ground.) Imagine the great-horned owl flying in on one of its favorite prey items, a skunk. When the owl is within the range of 10 feet, the skunk will more than likely spray in a defensive move. Without a sense of smell, the potent fumes don’t affect or deter the owl. Dinner is on!

Myth: Opossums sleep hanging from their tail

An opossum looks at the camera while sitting in a tree.
Photo by Flickr user ksblack99.

Although opossums can hang for a short period of time from their tail, they use this rat-like appendage more as a way to balance themselves while tree climbing. The tail can even be used to carry grasses and other materials, which frees up their mouthful of 50 teeth for eating a great variety of proteins and plant materials.

Myth: Beavers pack mud with their tails

An American beaver munches on a stick.
Photo by Jen Goellnitz/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0)

These crafty builders actually use their large webbed feet for packing mud to create dams and lodges. There is more to the story, though. A beaver’s tail is essential for steering when swimming, working as a rudder. When sending an alert of danger to their family, beavers will slap the water to make a loud warning noise. And, finally, when chawing on their favorite wood material, beavers will use their tail as a flexible leaning post, leaning back on it to rest.

Myth: You will get warts if a toad pees on you

An American toad sits among dirt and mulch under a tree.

This is probably my personal favorite myth. More than likely, this misguided reasoning comes from people jumping to a conclusion that “bumps” (warts) on a human’s hand are caused by an animal, like a toad, with bumpy skin that looks like it has warts. Similarly, many folks used to believe that eating walnuts could cause a person to go crazy, or “nuts.” The thinking was that the walnut’s shell looked much like the human brain … so it must affect that cognitive organ of ours in a noticeable way. Nutty, huh?

Amy Swigart
East Region Guest Experiences Manager