The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Animal Cliches Usually are only Cliches
Ro Wauer, January 25, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Ever wonder about the validity of some of the widespread clichés about animals? For instance, how about "blind as a bat," "eyes like a hawk," "eats like a bird," or "busy as a bee"? Although their origins may never be known, the vast majority of these phases are "crazy as a coot."

A few of the animal clichés, however, make some sense. For instance, bees are extremely busy little insects, constantly involved with their various assigned duties. Each type of individual has a different responsibility, all combined to benefit the whole. The queen bee lays eggs, producing more bees, while the varied workers, actually undeveloped females, gather nectar to make honey, build the wax combs in which the larvae are raised, and feed the queen and larvae. Other workers actually flap their wings, up to 11,000 times per minute, to cool down an overheated hive that may include up to 60,000 individuals, and also defend the hive against raiders and intruders.

Another factual cliché is "eyes of a hawk." A red-tailed hawk, for instance, can see a rabbit from two miles away or a dime from 1,200 feet. The smallest object most humans can see at 1,200 feet in one the size of a grapefruit. And maybe big as a moose is also factual, as this member of the deer family is huge. Some of the Alaskan moose can weigh up to 1,800 pounds and stand more than 7.5 feet at the shoulder. And how about "hungry as a bear?" Especially in fall before hibernation, bears beef up on food to last through the winter months. An Alaskan grizzly can eat up to 90 pounds of fish in a single day, and a hungry polar bear that encounters a whale carcass can eat more than 100 pounds of meat and blubber in a day.

Most of our animal clichés are baseless. "Blind as a bat" is one that is most often accepted by unknowing folks. All bats have tiny eyes and can see, and some species, such as the flying foxes of Africa and Asia, have large eyes and see well enough to locate fruit in trees by sight even at night. Most bats augment their eyesight by echolocation, emitting high frequency sounds that bounce back from an object that can be as broad as a building or as tiny as a piano wire.

As for the birds, anyone who "eats like a bird" would have a huge appetite, as most birds eat 25 to 50 percent of their body weight daily. Their high metabolism burns up calories faster than long-distance runners. Hummingbirds may be the metabolic champs, eating almost continuous during the daylight hours. They normally eat twice their body weight daily, the equivalent of a 150-pound man daily consuming 1,000 quarter-pound burgers. And is the cliché "wise as an owl" fact or fancy? Owls are not any wiser than most other predators. The cliché probably was derived from the owl's apparent calm demeanor and its ability to swivel its head to look in all direction.

"Crazy as a coot" is another untruth, although anyone spending much time watching these aggressive waterbirds cannot help but wonder. They fight among themselves, even running across the water and on land in a demented way, and make all sorts of weird sounds, to both scare off a competitor and to warn their neighbors about intruders.

How about the cliché "quite as a mouse?" Most mice are rather quiet, although nestlings constantly squeak for attention or food, much like human babies. And the grasshopper mouse of the Southwestern deserts, that weighs less than half an ounce, marks its territory by unleashing long, high-pitched squeals, just like tiny dogs.

There undoubtedly are lots of other animal clichés around, most of which have little validity. On the other hand, with our society getting fatter and fatter, maybe more and more folks are "lazy as a sloth," a tropical mammal that rarely moves about very much, moving only about 125 feet per day, a real couch (tree) potato.

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