Somewhere, right now, an adult is quoting an interesting animal "fact" that he actually learned from an old cartoon. Or from some other equally unreliable source. This is why sayings like "blind as a bat" persist even though bats can in fact see (tip: try substituting the more accurate phrase, "Blind as a man with two assholes in his face instead of eyes").
Anyway, as we've pointed out before, animals are one of those subjects particularly vulnerable to laughable misconceptions. Which is why even today you can hear somebody say ...
#5. Mother Birds Abandon Their Chicks if You Touch Them
You're a little kid, and you have discovered a newly hatched chick for the first time. Maybe it fell out of the nest! You go to poke it, when your mom runs up and gives you the "Don't touch it or the mother bird will abandon it!" speech. Something to do with the bird having the smell of a human on it. And from that point forward, you know that loving something means letting it remain free ... from your repugnant stink, which is capable of ruining a life form for entire its species.
On one hand, the warning is well advised. Trying to help a baby bird by feeding it, cleaning it or housing it will usually kill it. There is a specific set of instructions for how to care for an abandoned bird, though usually the bird isn't even abandoned. Usually, kids are just stumbling upon the bird when its mother is away doing something else.
"I just want some goddamned time to my goddamned self."
It's a big enough problem that it's actually against the law to try and raise a native species of baby bird yourself; it's punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine up to 15 grand. Damn, having to admit that to your fellow inmates would actually be worse than the sentence itself.
"They caught me selling a dimebag of baby crows to an undercover."
The Problem ...
First off, birds hardly use their noses; instead they rely on their eyes and ears. So no, they can't immediately sense when a baby has been tainted by human stench, whether you pick it up with your hands or try to rub your balls on it.
Second, birds don't really care if humans touch their chicks or not. While touching a bird when it is learning to fly can be detrimental to its ability to fly, it doesn't stop mother birds from feeding or caring for their chicks. They're still bonded to them through good and bad, just like your parents are with you.
Except for the times they left you in the woods, only for the wolves to return you in disgust.
So How'd It Get Started?
Animal welfare organizations have long maintained (even now) that you shouldn't help newly born animals with anything because they're still learning. But, if you've ever met a 7-year-old, you know they're not easily deterred. "But MOM! The baby needs my help getting back to the nest!" So, the moms came up with this urban legend: "If you touch it, its mom will let him starve while watching you with blank, judgmental eyes dear. You see for mommies, it's a thin line between nurturing, and gladly ridding ourselves of a foul smelling accident that ruined her life."
"I'm not sure how we got on to this."
#4. Cut an Earthworm in Half, You Get Two Worms
For some of you, this was your first attempt at hands-on animal biology. You're in the back yard and you find an earthworm. You cut it in half, because you're a sadist, and look at that! Both halves are still alive!
"One day, this will be Father."
Then some helpful grownup comes along and says, "You know, eventually both ends will heal and grow back, and you'll have two worms!" It's one of those everyday interesting "facts" that you see mentioned in passing in old books.
To a kid, the logic is sound: If lizards and such can regenerate new tails they've lost, and worms are nothing but tail-shaped things, they can probably regenerate their whole bodies. And they're such basic creatures, really just tubes of ooze capable of nothing but wriggling and creeping out 12-year-old girls.
The Problem ...
Try this. Buy yourself a cow. Now sever the cow straight down the middle. How many cows do you now have? Did each half grow a new half cow? Didn't think so.
If you think we're being silly by picking such a completely different animal, fine. Try it with a fly, or a cockroach. Because earthworms are as biologically complex as any insect. They, too, have heads and tails and (more importantly) entire systems for eating and metabolizing food. They have brains, and hearts, the whole bit.
We can't find the bit labeled "burger," and we can usually find it pretty quickly.
So the idea that if you cut the head off, the ass end of the worm will just grow a new head is just as insane as thinking a cow or a dog can do it. It would be pretty freaking amazing if they could. And if it were true, we would be living on the planet equivalent of the movie Slither, because every worm that ever got chopped up would magically become a whole family of worms.
This is about to get a little chest-burstery.
So How'd It Get Started?
The myth probably comes from a simple misunderstanding. Earthworms, like most insects, do have regenerative abilities, just not nearly as advanced as we think. So if you cut part of an earthworm's tail off, it might be able to regrow a stunted replacement. And they do keep moving after you cut them in half, but that's just because both sides are wriggling in pain as the final nerve signals shoot through. The same has been observed to happen with decapitated chickens and humans. Both with chickens and earth worms, the non-head side eventually dies off.
So to recap, the first experiment that taught many a child that nature is a mysterious, wondrous thing was actually just chopping an animal in half, and watching it writhe around in the throes of death. But at least your parents warned you before you molested those birds into the orphanage.
#3. Rabbits Eat Carrots, Mice Love Cheese
Do a Google Image Search for "cartoon rabbit" and within the first five results you'll find one eating a carrot, even if it's not Bugs Bunny. Carrots are to rabbits what bananas are to monkeys.
The only thing more certain than a rabbit's carrot addiction is this: Mice love cheese. If a mousetrap doesn't have a big triangular wedge of cheese in it, the mouse is going to walk right by that sucker. That fact has been well established everywhere from commercials to song lyrics to kids' movies.
We can just tell this is about to be solved in a funny and heartwarming way.
The Problem ...
Cartoons have been hard on the world's pet rabbits. You can tell because every single website about rabbits, and rabbit breeders, and rabbit feeding all have to carry this warning: If you try to feed a rabbit nothing but carrots, it will die. It's like giving a human nothing but cotton candy. If your rabbit happens to like carrots, you have to carefully ration the stuff. Non-cartoon rabbits eat mostly hay and green leafy things. If you give a rabbit a carrot with the green top still on it, it will disregard the carrot part and eat just the top. It'll be like, "What's this orange shit?"
"Go die in a fire."
As for mice and cheese, to start off, mice have really sensitive noses, so Limburger would peel their little mousey faces off. Figuratively speaking. And then a recent study that we hope was funded by a grant to investigate cartoon myths found that mice respond to the taste, smell and texture of food, and will decline something as strong-smelling and highly flavored as cheese. They're actually drawn to foods with relatively high sugar content, such as grains and fruit. In response to all this cheese/mice humbug, the apparently bored British Parliament released a "technical note" suggesting that mice be caught with, "biscuits, porridge oats, other cereals and chocolate."
So that's what you need to plant next to their little arch doorways in the baseboard.
And remove all frying pans from the vicinity if you have a particularly hapless cat.
So How'd It Get Started?
As for rabbits and carrots, it goes back to Bugs Bunny and an old Clark Gable movie from 1934. The film was a romantic comedy called It Happened One Night, and it was a huge hit at the time. There was a scene where Gable was talking around a carrot he was chewing on and the animators for Bugs Bunny depicted Bugs doing the same, in an open parody of the scene that audiences of the time would have immediately recognized (kind of the way we immediately recognize when a Shrek character imitates "bullet time" from The Matrix). That became standard Bugs Bunny behavior, and what followed was 75 years of kids growing up thinking that rabbits were carrot junkies.
Clark Gable, seconds before launching into an astonishing operatic piece.
As for mice and cheese, one popular theory (which hasn't been discussed scientifically, so take this cum grano salis), is that mice were constantly being discovered in medieval cupboards eating the household cheese stash. But this would have been because it was the only food they could get to -- the meat would be hanging and salted, and grain would be stored in jars. It was cheese or starvation.
"Beats ending up as hot dog meat."
So it's like that one time you mentioned offhand to an aunt that you liked beef jerky, and now she's been getting you beef jerky every Christmas for 20 straight years. Or that one cop who probably got caught eating a doughnut a hundred years ago and forever cemented the dietary reputation of an entire profession.