Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Common Myths About Adirondack Nature

TOS_barred_owlWalking through the woods on a cool spring morning, I saw a barred owl in an old maple tree. I circled the owl three times from a distance. Its head kept turning to follow me, tracking my movements with three complete revolutions.

One of the owl’s chicks had fallen from the nest, so I climbed the tree and placed the chick back in it. Then the owl flew up and pushed the chick out of the nest onto the ground, where it lay in a pile of melting snow.

One of the owl’s chicks had fallen from the nest, so I climbed the tree and placed the chick back in it. Then the owl flew up and pushed the chick out of the nest onto the ground, where it lay in a pile of melting snow.

I noticed that the maple was the biggest tree in sight, so it had to be the oldest. A rusty sap bucket hung from the tree on a tap that had probably been forgotten some fifteen years ago. The bucket, which had originally been placed four feet off the ground, was now ten feet high, having moved up as the tree grew.

A cute baby skunk was hiding in a hollow under the tree. I stuck my head in to have a good look, because I knew that immature skunks couldn’t spray. Then I saw a porcupine, but when I drew closer, it shot several quills at me, narrowly missing my neck.

Walking home, I heard a bear off in the distance. It had just emerged from hibernation and was hooting to find a mate.

I passed a fallen tree and contemplated how it must have landed silently because no one had been there to hear it.

When I got home, I looked at the calendar and noticed the date: April 1st.

This fictional account is spun of common misbeliefs that are handed down through the generations with surprising tenacity. Here are some common myths, followed by the corresponding truths. (Many thanks to the staff of the Springfield office of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources for sharing their favorite nature misconceptions.)

An owl can turn its head 360 degrees: While it looks like an owl can spin its head around at will, in fact the head only moves up to 270 degrees in either direction. The structure of an owl’s neck vertebrae and specially adapted blood vessels enable these extreme motions. (Red-tailed hawks can turn their head nearly as far owls.)

If you touch a baby bird that has fallen from its nest, and then put it back, the parents will reject it and let it die: Adults will not abandon a chick just because a person touched it. If you find a baby chick on the ground, search overhead for the nest and gently place the chick back in the nest. Many “baby birds” found on the ground are really fledglings who are learning to fly. If a juvenile bird has young feathers, is awkwardly flying near the ground, and can perch on your finger, then place it on a nearby branch and the parents will find it.

The biggest trees are the oldest trees: Growth rate depends on a combination of genes and growing conditions. Some species (white pine, cottonwood) grow quickly, while others (white oak, hickory) grow more slowly. A red oak 16 inches in diameter that is growing in fertile soil with plenty of sunlight might be 50 years old, while a red oak of similar age that is competing with other trees in poor growing conditions might only be 10 inches across. A shagbark hickory growing nearby that is the same size could be 75 years old.

A nail driven into a tree moves up as the tree grows: Trees only grow upward from the tips of the branches. A nail or sugaring tap driven or drilled into the side of a tree will remain at the same height over time. The bole of a tree grows outward, so eventually the nail or hole will be engulfed by wood.

Baby skunks can’t spray: Skunks can spray to a certain extent within a few weeks, and can spray at full force at about three months old.

Porcupines can shoot their quills: A porcupine does not have ballistic quills. If you touch a porcupine, its sharp quills may penetrate your skin and separate from the animal. It’s also capable of thwacking predators with its tail.

Bears can hoot: Black bear cubs moan, coo, mew purr, bawl, and make gulping sounds. Adults grunt, bellow and woof. On rare occasions, such as when cornered, bears growl. But they don’t hoot. Owls hoot.

If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear, it makes no sound: Maybe. Maybe not. You’re on your own for this one.

Michael J. Caduto is an author, ecologist, and storyteller who lives in Reading, Vermont. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation:


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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at


7 Responses

  1. Bill Schneider says:

    The falling tree makes sound waves. It’s only sound if there’s an ear to hear it.

  2. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Usually you can find some value in any article, but it sure was a challenge with this ridiculous approach to rectifying some common wildlife misconceptions….really!

    • John Warren says:


      Please find somewhere else for your continuously nasty comments, you are no longer welcome here. There are plenty of places on the internet for you to express your inability to get along with others, the Almanack is not one of them.

      John Warren
      Founder & Editor

  3. Walter F. Wouk says:

    One man’s “woof” is another man’s “hoot.” While camping at the NYS campground at Sacandaga my son and I were awakened by a series of loud and distinct “hoots” from behind the tent.

    We got up to investigate and discovered that a bear had over-turned several small boulders in search of grubs, discovered something edible and called to its cub. We heard the bear several more times that night as it roamed through the campground.

    You can describe it as a bellow or a woof, but it sounded like a hoot to me

  4. Bruce says:

    I don’t know about owls, but some birds in a clutch hatch a few days apart and the older chick will try to hog the food and sometimes push the weaker chick(s) out of the nest. This is a perfectly natural strategy to ensure survival of the strongest chick(s).

    I would not attempt to put a chick back in the nest or interfere in any way if the chick has not reached fledgeling stage. Even at that, if a fledgeling is on the ground the parents know where it is and are taking care of it.

    We humans sometimes demonstrate misplaced empathy for our wild neighbors and interfere where we should not, very often to the detriment of the animal we thought we were saving.

  5. Sheryl Trask says:

    That was a fun article!

  6. Marco says:

    You should *never* touch a chick unless you have been trained to do so. Like Bruce said, there are reasons for the chick to be there, though unpleasant to contemplate, nature has it’s way. One birds loss of a chick is another chick’s increased food. A chic available to a fox is eaten. And so on. The bird will take the chic back, but a crow goes hungry and eats seeds from a tree instead. Remember, nature has been around for just a few thousand years. It is not correct to impose our values onto the woods.