Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


The Texas state ornithologist sets us straight on twelve wild bird myths.

 Hakoar | Dreamstime.com

“I’m telling you, it’s true. Vultures can’t poop. Bet you anything I’m right.”

Campfire talk often veers into such odd wildlife topics, and, yes, this guy lost the bet to his buddy.

How do I know? They called me for the facts.

The campfire “expert” claimed that vultures, who regurgitate the smelly contents of their stomachs as a defense measure when approached too closely, must not have an anus. Clearly, they lack that body part since they were seen eliminating waste as vomit, right?

Nope, nope, nope. Just one of those ancient myths about animal behavior that never seem to go away.

“Myth” is defined in the dictionary as a widely held but false belief or idea. “Claim” describes spreading the myth as fact, a common occurrence in the bird world. Perhaps it’s kinder just to call them common misperceptions.

Here are some of the most widely spread bird behavior myths, along with the facts you can tell Uncle Andy or your buddy Joe the next time they try to pass these claims as truth around the campfire.

 Rob Curtis/The Early Birder

“Has anyone reported a lost bird? It’s pecking on my window; it wants to come inside.”

We get these calls sometimes. I’m sure it’s lovely inside their homes, but the bird is no one’s pet and has no interest in coming in the house. Instead, the bird is pecking at its own reflection in the window.

Cardinals are notorious for doing this, but bluebirds, mockingbirds and roadrunners do it as well. The bird thinks it’s seeing an intruder of the same sex trying to commandeer its territory and attacks its imaginary competitor.

To remedy the problem, eliminate the reflection. Pull down the shades or temporarily tape up some newspaper or wrapping paper on the problematic windows so the bird no longer sees the perceived “intruder.”

 Rob Curtis/The Early Birder

Everyone loves a longtime romance, but you won’t find much of that in the bird world. Very few of the world’s bird species mate for life, including larger birds with low reproductive output like swans and whooping cranes.

What happens when one of the pair dies? Does the mate soon die of heartbreak? No. The result is often a new pair-bond. From studying banded birds, we know that “divorce” is also not unusual in some birds that build long-lasting bonds.

The remaining majority of even-less-sentimental birds typically have one mate during a single breeding season, but once the fledglings can fend for themselves, the mated pair go their separate ways. Some can’t even stay faithful for a season. The DNA from nestlings’ blood samples shows that mated pairs sometimes fool around with neighboring birds of their kind, even those with mates. Many popular birds — from hooded warblers to red-winged blackbirds — participate in this extra-pair paternity. (Who’s your daddy?)

 Sonja Sommerfeld / TPWD

People put red dye in their hummingbird food, thinking it’s needed to attract them, but it’s not. Red dye is not part of a hummingbird’s diet in the wild. We don’t know if there are side effects, so why risk it? It’s less expensive and so easy to do without: Mix four parts water with one part table sugar (never another type of sweetener), bring to a boil, allow to cool, then fill the feeder. Replace it every few days so it doesn’t spoil. Artificial colors not included, please.

 Johann Schumacher

This claim of robins arriving in spring might ring true far to our north, but American robins appear most any month across much of mild-weathered Texas. If that spring sighting is your first robin, you missed the massive flocks that gobble berries from trees and shrubs across Texas all winter. These flocks can be highly nomadic; once they’ve depleted the berries in a given area, they must push on in search of the next food source.

 Rob Curtis/The Early Birder

You’ve seen those gangly all-white birds occasionally sitting atop the back of a cow. Like many people, you might think the bird is removing ticks and any other nasty ectoparasites. Not so. Cows would need a lot of ticks to fill a bird’s belly. Instead, cattle egrets follow large-bodied livestock as they graze because the cattle flush grasshoppers, mice and other food items found deep in the grass. The slender egret can’t uncover as much food as a huge, heavy animal and its shadow can.

 Riley David

Birds that congregate in large numbers, especially urban dwellers like pigeons and grackles, are often deemed a nuisance. You’ve probably heard that placing a plastic owl decoy near the problem area will scare the birds away. Don’t underestimate their intelligence. Unless the decoy has movement, it won’t take long for these flocks to figure out that the owl is a fake. No movement, no threat. Pigeons have been seen huddled up almost shoulder-to-shoulder with owl decoys adorning office rooftops or restaurant patios. To the birds, the motionless object is just another potential perch.

 Rob Curtis / The Early Birder

Some people believe that any woodpecker pecking or drumming on a tree is trying to kill that tree. Not at all. Many woodpeckers forage on already-dead trees (called snags) or dead limbs found on healthy trees. Those birds are often extracting insects by boring deep into the dead wood.

Sapsuckers create their own feast by causing superficial wounds to the outer surface of certain trees. Then they eat both the tasty sap that oozes from the wounds and the insects that are lured to the sap and get trapped in that sticky mess. Trees die from drought, disease and competition for sun, but woodpeckers are the forest’s best friends, helping keep harmful insect pests in check.

 Pimmimemom | Dreamstime.com

How can that tiny hummingbird make such a long trek across the country or the Gulf of Mexico? We hop on airplanes for long trips, so hummingbirds must be doing the same atop migratory geese, right? (Did Grandpa really tell you that?)

Do a little digging and you’ll see that hummingbirds do just fine powering their own flight across large distances, including north-south across the Gulf. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that their destinations and the timing of their migration don’t fully match that of any species of geese. It’s cool to visualize, but just not true.

 Arlutz73 | Dreamstime.com

Who can resist helping an orphaned baby bird by bringing it inside? Wait, how do you know the bird is truly orphaned?

Some species, like blue jays, seem to fledge the nest a tad early, and may appear on the lawn looking helpless. Fear not, the bird’s parents are still feeding the youngster and keeping a watchful eye from the safety of the foliage nearby.

When you witness such an event, do bring inside children and pets that could harm the bird.

Separating a parent from its fledglings is the worst thing for the youngsters. If an active bird nest falls down due to a storm, put it back up on a branch so the parents can find it.

(Don’t bother “abandoned” fawns, either — mom will return. Wildlife rehabilitators are already busy caring for truly injured wildlife.)

 Rob Curtis/The Early Birder

The hawk sitting on a fence post, utility pole or high wire along a busy roadway is not enjoying watching the parade of cars. Actually, that raptor’s patiently waiting for a rodent or other prey to betray its presence with movement so it can swoop down for its next meal. Our roadsides often host a prime array of grasses and weeds, perfect for covering a healthy population of cotton rats and other small prey. Sad but true: these hawks often get hit by vehicles as they pursue their lunch.

 Rob Curtis/The Early Birder

Someone gets dive-bombed by a nesting hawk or mockingbird, so they pick up the phone to get that bold bird removed. Which agency will come do that? None of them.

For 99.9 percent of calls received from someone complaining that something must be done, there just aren’t enough biologists to fulfill such orders, nor is it their objective to remove birds. That bird’s probably swooping because it’s being a good parent and protecting a perceived threat to its nearby eggs or young.

Instead of futilely calling authorities, give those good parents a little space; just make a short-term adjustment to your routine until the nesting cycle is done.

What’s that rare time when authorities will remove a bird? Once, over a long Easter weekend, a vulture made a poor decision of laying its eggs in the outdoor playhouse of a Houston-area daycare. That call was answered.

 Bill Reaves / TPWD

Have you missed hearing the loud whistle of the northern bobwhite? In a 1969 TPWD publication, quail expert A.S. Jackson notes that anyone stopping a vehicle along any roadside on any June morning within the range of the bobwhite should be able to hear that call. For the last several decades, no calls have been heard across much of the bird’s range. Fire ants are often blamed. After all, they’re an invasive species.

Hold on, not so fast.

Humans have profoundly altered and fragmented the grasslands and rangelands that once supported these quail. Native grasses and forbs (aka weeds) have been replaced by monocultures of Old World grass, like bermudagrass. Lands aren’t managed with prescribed fire much these days, a disturbance that maintains a rich, diverse herbaceous layer critical to bobwhite. Nationwide, bobwhite numbers are down by about 83 percent. According to the Partners in Flight’s Landbird Conservation Plan, by 2026 half of the remaining bobwhite will have disappeared, too.

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