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Bird Myth Busters: Do Birds Fly To The Moon In Winter? And Other Unknowns


Time now for some talking birds.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A bird show - I like that. I love birds.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

SIMON: Ray Brown, host of the radio show and podcast Talkin' Birds, expert on all things aviary, joins us now from the studios of WGBH in Boston. Ray, thanks for being back with us.

RAY BROWN: My pleasure. Thank you, Scott. Good morning.

SIMON: Good morning. And, Ray, I'm told there are a few myths out there about birds. Can I run them by you?

BROWN: Oh, sure.

SIMON: Is it true - I can't believe anyone would believe this. Is it true that we don't see birds in the winter because they fly off to the moon?

BROWN: Yes, that is true.

SIMON: (Laughter).

BROWN: No, actually, that's not.


SIMON: Have you considered running for president, Ray?

BROWN: And it used to be true. At least, it was thought to be true in large part because people would see birds flying in front of the moon. They'd see those silhouettes, so it kind of - they put two and two together, got five. And there was a 17th century English scientist and minister, Charles Morton. One of his quotes was - now whither should these creatures go, unless it were to the moon. And I guess they didn't think they might go south. Instead, they would go up.

SIMON: Another bird migration myth - people used to believe that hummingbirds migrated on the backs of geese.

BROWN: Yeah. I guess they figured they were too small to fly any distance on their own, so they'd have to, you know, hop aboard a goose to do that. Of course, not exactly correct. But, you know, there have been observations of small birds landing on the backs of big birds. But mostly I think it's because they're harassing those big birds.

SIMON: Yeah.

BROWN: They're kind of doing this mobbing behavior. But ruby-throated hummingbirds, for example, Scott, will fly across the Gulf of Mexico in the spring - 500 miles over open water. That's about an 18-to-22-hour trip.

SIMON: Oh, mercy. What about this one? Is it true that you shouldn't throw rice at a wedding...


SIMON: ...Because the birds will eat it. And their little tummies will expand, and they'll explode.

BROWN: Not so much, apparently. They have done some studies about this because a lot of people have thought this for a long time. You know, there was even - a Connecticut state rep in the '80s proposed a law to ban the tossing of rice at weddings.

SIMON: (Laughter).

BROWN: But the scientists say that rice will not explode inside the bird unless the rice is boiled inside the bird.

SIMON: Then they'd have bigger problems than eating rice. Yeah.

BROWN: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly.

SIMON: And one more - can you...

BROWN: Yeah.

SIMON: Can you eat a barnacle goose during Lent. Now, I'd never heard of a barnacle goose until, you know, a producer put this out before me. It sounds like a "SpongeBob" character.

BROWN: Well, this was back in the late 12th century. A belief arose that these geese actually were hatched from barnacles in wood pilings along the water's edge. In fact, there was a noted scribe of the time who claimed that he actually saw this take place - tiny geese emerging from the barnacles on these on these pilings. The Irish clergy at the time decided it was OK to consume barnacle goose flesh during fast days because they were really crustaceans.

SIMON: Oh, right, and not really - yeah, yeah.

BROWN: So that was kind of convenient there.

SIMON: Those Irish priests were endlessly clever - weren't they? - come to think of it.

BROWN: The pope overturned this, by the way. He said these creatures lived like geese and ducks, so they really were birds, even though he didn't dispute the fact that they were hatched from barnacles.

SIMON: Was that Pope Innocent?

BROWN: (Laughter) Pope Innocent III.

SIMON: I think that's what he was called.


BROWN: Pope Naivete was his other name.

SIMON: Ray, thanks for clearing all of this up.

BROWN: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Ray Brown from Talkin' Birds.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Tweet, tweet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.