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Blane Klemek: Do bears hibernate? The truth about outdoor myths

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To be (as blind as a bat), or not to be; that is the question. Myths about the creeping, crawling, flying, swimming, burrowing and climbing inhabitants of the wild world in which we share space with abound everywhere.

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What one person proclaims as a factual critter tidbit, another debunks as an outright falsehood or yarn. Indeed, there’s plenty of biota bunk going around in the wildlife rumor mill.

For instance, are bats really blind? The fact is, bats are not blind at all. Bats have two eyes similar to our own. However, one of the main differences is bats have evolved to see at nighttime in a much different manner than many other nocturnal mammals. Instead of relying solely on eyes for locating and capturing prey, bats emit high frequency vocalizations called echolocation, like sonar, to find and home in on fleeing meals such as moths and other prey.

Do bears hibernate? Well, yes and no — true hibernators they are not. Bears slumber away the winter months in a sleep of sorts, but they don’t enter a comatose state that true hibernators such as woodchucks, Richardson’s ground squirrels and other ground squirrels do. Whereas black bears and other bears’ heart and metabolic rates do indeed decrease, the ground squirrels’ pulse and body temperature decreases to a near death-like condition without actually dying. Yet, miraculously, ground squirrels and other true hibernators awake come springtime.

Is a rabbit a hare or is a hare a rabbit? Well, neither statement is true. Newborn rabbits are altricial — they’re born virtually helpless, “blind as a bat” (their eyes are closed shut) and “naked as a jay bird” (here’s another fallacy, although, I must admit, a newborn jay is entirely naked). Meanwhile, hares (why not spell it “hair”?) are born precocial — able to run about fairly decently, are fully furred and can see the world with open eyes — all from day No. 1.

Can flying squirrels really fly? Well, the simple and correct answer is a resounding no. While the flying squirrel does indeed appear to be flying, the rodents’ flight in nothing more than a controlled freefall. These adorable looking squirrels launch their descent from a high perch and glide gracefully through the air to a newfound perch some distance lower. It’s not flying, but it’s as close as it gets to mammalian flight next to the true flying mammals we call bats.

Seagull! Now there’s an interesting word and bird. Of the 27 species of “seagulls” that exist throughout North America, not one is called a seagull. In fact, a seagull is not a seagull at all.

They are simply gulls: herring gull, ring-billed gull, Franklin’s gull, laughing gull, and so on.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker? Hmmm. First off, this migrant woodpecker isn’t a coward as “yellow belly” suggests, nor is it particularly yellow-bellied in color — it’s difficult to distinguish any yellow on its belly. Furthermore, this species of woodpecker doesn’t suck sap either. They do indeed drill holes into trees such as birch for the sap, but they do not possess an ounce of ability to suck a thing. Their tongues probe the sap for nourishment, which, aside from the sap itself, often includes many kinds of insects that are attracted to the sticky stuff, too.

A beaver’s tail is flat so it can carry mud or pat mud in place like a bricklayer with a trowel, right? Wrong! Here’s another, ahem, “tale.” While it is certainly true that one of the most unique tails in the animal kingdom is the beaver’s flat, broad and relatively hairless tail, Mr. Beaver uses his tail as a rudder, to prop himself up when he’s gnawing a tree for felling, and to slap the water’s surface as fair warning to others of his kind that danger is imminent.

The wise, great horned owl? Now here’s another adjective and bird name to dissect. Is the great horned owl, or any owl for that matter, wise? Well, not really. They do, after all, possess a “birdbrain,” and, as a species, do not find themselves graduating at the top of their class. Ravens and crows are by far more intellectually gifted compared to their predatory nemeses. Moreover, those “horns” on the top of their heads are a long way from horns, they are simply tufts of feathers, albeit a form of keratin nonetheless.

Don’t get too close to porcupines because they’ll throw their quills at you. Right? Wrong again. The prickly porky, though armed with a tail and back full of the harmless looking pointy things that aren’t harmless whatsoever, cannot be fired like bullets from a firearm as some people will have you believe.

It takes a healthy swat from his thick and broad tail across the nose of a would-be predator in order for those nasty quills to dislodge and inflict their intended pain.

Other wildlife myths? Big bears can’t climb trees? Well, they can if there are plenty of branches to grab onto. Deer, moose, and caribou have horns? No, they’re antlers, not horns. Antlers are comprised of solid bone that grow and fall off the male genders’ heads every year.

Do fawns have an odor? They do, but not as much as adult deer. A fawn’s primary defense against detection is their cryptic coat and by remaining motionless.

June bugs aren’t bugs (they’re beetles); robins don’t eat just worms (they eat lots of fruit, too); mule deer aren’t related to mules (they have big ears like mules); house sparrows aren’t sparrows (they’re finches); and black squirrels aren’t a different species of squirrel (they’re simply a black — melanistic — phase of the gray squirrel).

And do hummingbirds really hitch rides onto the backs of migrating trumpeter swans each spring and fall?! Some people believe this to be true, but I would bet all of us know otherwise as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@ yahoo.com

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