The Truth About Animal Clichés

What truth lies in our metaphors about animals?

  • Roger Di Silvestro
  • Feb 01, 2003
WE'VE ALL HEARD 'EM. We've all used 'em: well-worn clichés about animals that we use as metaphors to describe one another. He's quiet as a mouse. She eats like a bird. But what do these pithy phrases tell us about animals? How quiet is a mouse? How much does a bird eat? When it comes to accurately depicting animals, are those who use these colorful expressions as wise as owls or as crazy as coots? Let's take a look at some familiar animal clichés and see if there is a grain of truth, or just a grain of sand, in these pearls of wisdom.

Most mice are pretty quiet, except when they are frightened into squeaking. But one species—the grasshopper mouse of the Midwest and the American Southwest—is known for the noise it makes. This mouse marks its territory in part by unleashing long, high-pitched squeals, just like tiny howling wolves. And although these rodents weigh less than half an ounce and scarcely project the look of a voracious hunter, they're like wolves in another way, too: They're predators, hunting down insects, scorpions and sometimes even other rodents.

This is what you want your optometrist to tell you. A hawk can see a rabbit from two miles away or a dime from 1,200 feet. The smallest object a human can see from 1,200 feet is a grapefruit.

"All bats can see," says Bob Benson, a spokesman for Bat Conservation International. "But most species—about 70 percent—augment their vision with echolocation." Many bats have tiny eyes, which probably gave rise to the belief that they are blind. But even if they couldn't see, bats that use echolocation could still detect tiny objects in their environment because the sounds they emit bounce back to them, telling them what lies ahead as they flit through the air. In experiments, bats with their vision completely obscured have been able to fly across rooms crisscrossed wall to wall with string and not become entangled. On the other hand, flying foxes and other fruit bats of Africa and Asia, which do not echolocate, have large eyes and see well, finding fruit trees by sight.

It's unlikely that Sigmund Freud ever analyzed a coot—a black water bird with a white beak—so no professional opinion can be cited on this issue. The coot's reputation may be founded on several behavioral characteristics. During courtship, males and females may look a touch crazed, chattering to one another and splashing water to signal interest. Coots also splash when they spot predators, but that's hardly crazy. The behavior that earned them their place in the world of clichés is probably their method of taking flight. Because their wings are stubby, coots can't get aloft efficiently. So, like another similarly impaired bird called the booby, they run along the surface of the water, flapping and squawking and generally raising a ruckus long before they rise into the air. For short flights of 100 yards or so, they may not even get airborne. They just run across the water. Crazy? Not likely, but it sure looks that way. One thing is certain: Because coots are the most social members of the rail family, gathering in loose flocks, they warn one another about incoming predators—which means there are always likely to be a few old coots around.

Now that's hungry. "In fall when salmon first arrive in the streams and grizzlies are most hungry, a big male can eat up to 90 pounds of fish in a single day," says NWF bear biologist Sterling Miller. He suspects that when a real bonanza is encountered, such as a whale carcass, a hungry polar bear may be able to eat more than 100 pounds of blubber and meat in a day. So if you have friends who eat like polar bears, you might tell them to watch their cholesterol. And remind them that about 80 percent of the grizzly bear's diet is made up of plenty of greens, fruit and tubers—some 200 plant species in all.

Bees are very busy, if you mean honey bee workers and workers of other hive-dwelling social bees. All the bees in a hive have assigned duties. For the queen and also the males, called drones, the tasks are simple. The queen lays eggs, producing more bees, and the drones fertilize the queen. But the real busy bees are the workers, which are undeveloped females. Workers gather nectar to make honey, build the wax combs in which larvae are raised, defend the hive, feed the queen and the larvae, and when the hive gets too warm, they cool things down by flapping their wings—up to 11,000 times per minute. A big hive will include as many as 60,000 busy workers, each of which may live for about 35 days. But after that: Rest In Peace.

Wise as an owl looks might be a better way to phrase it, says Ron Austing, an owl researcher. Hawks and crows are often thought of as the whiz kids of the bird world, but if appearances count, owls are at the head of their class. "Owls have eyes that face forward similar to ours and they look calm, indifferent and scholarly, like a judge," says Austing. The owl's reputation for wisdom traces to Greek mythology. Athena, goddess of wisdom, traveled with an owl on her shoulder. The link of owls to wisdom, at least in ancient Greece, apparently dates to 490 B.C., when King Darius I of Persia was attacking Athens. In a battle on the Plain of Marathon, 10,000 Greeks fought back and seemed to be losing when an owl soared over the field and landed on the shoulder of the Greek general, Miltiades. The Greeks took this to mean that Athena was on their side and, heartened, won the battle. After that, owls were popular in Athens. The wealthy even strolled around town with owls in cages or perched on their shoulders.

That's plenty big. The moose is the largest member of the deer family. The biggest moose come from Alaska, where they may weigh more than 1,800 pounds and stand more than 7.5 feet tall at the shoulder.

If someone says you eat like a bird and has songbirds in mind, you might consider going on a diet. "Birds are voracious eaters," says NWF chief naturalist Craig Tufts. Most birds eat 25 to 50 percent of their body weight daily. Birds have high metabolisms, burning up calories faster than a long-distance runner. Hummingbirds are probably the metabolic champs, maintaining their wing- blurring flight by eating almost continuously all day long, putting away a meal of flower nectar—supplemented with the occasional spider or insect—every 10 minutes. They must eat about twice their body weight daily, the equivalent of a 150-pound man chowing down about 1,000 quarter-pound burgers a day, bread and all.

Sloths, those tree-hanging denizens of Latin American rain forests that look like little bears suspended upside down from branches, are not lazy. They're just slow. And their slowness is a product of their metabolism, which is only 40 to 45 percent of what a biologist would expect to see in an animal a sloth's size. Everything they do is slow. On average, a sloth will move about 125 feet per day. Sloths even digest slowly, taking a full month to process the food in a full stomach.

Animal clichés, right or wrong, are the mementos of a time when we knew far less about wildlife than we do now. In many cases the phrases are what remains of long-ago beliefs and mistaken ideas, such as the fear that bats will entangle in your hair. But although scientific knowledge has undermined some of these metaphors, we still go on using them, like a leopard that can't change its spots.

A former senior editor of this magazine, Roger Di Silvestro is now senior director of communications for the National Parks Conservation Association. He thinks of himself as lazy as a bee and wise as a bat.

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