We learn these phrases as kids and never give them a second thought. You're "happy as a clam." He's "crazy as a loon." She "eats like a bird." You know what they mean -- you're really happy, he's a bit nutty, she doesn't eat much -- but do you ever think of what you're actually saying, and whether or not it's true? Are clams happy? Do loons have a screw loose? Do birds pick at their food? Maybe, maybe not.
Some animal sayings, or idioms, certainly are true. Take "a fish out of water," for example. If you see a dance floor crowded with 20-somethings shimmying and shaking to rock tunes, and then an elderly couple strolls into their midst and tries to waltz to the music, you might comment that the two old folks are like fish out of water, meaning they're in a situation they're not suited to. Since fish would certainly be out of place on land, the saying is an apt one.
But other sayings about animals are debatable. Does the early bird get the worm? Different bird species do arise at different times, and some of the earliest risers certainly nosh on worms. However, so do the later risers; the early risers can't gobble them all up. The most interesting sayings to ponder, though, are the ones that are just plain false. Here are 10 of them.
Bats aren't blind. They're not even a little nearsighted. What they do have is exceptionally acute hearing. They also possess sonar so sophisticated, it tops that used by the U.S. military [source:Science Daily]. This sonar, or echolocation ability, involves the bats producing ultrasonic pulses, or sounds, which then reflect off objects. The bats process the reflected sound to avoid obstacles, to effectively hunt and to properly orient themselves.
Since bats are nocturnal animals, and have such amazing echolocation skills, their sense of sight isn't that important. Perhaps this is why the myth about their blindness arose. It also may have something to do with the fact that bats, the world's only flying mammals, have long been viewed by humans as both fascinating and repulsive -- qualities that have led to many myths about the creatures.
Many people would agree that bugs in general are not cute. Lots of folks, in fact, find them gross, whether we're talking about flies, cockroaches or ants. (And we know "bug" is not a scientific term for an insect, but we're dealing with a simile here). So could such creepy critters have cute ears? Highly unlikely. But more to the point, bugs don't generally have ears. At least not the kind of ears we think about -- those two appendages on either side of, or on top of, the head. Grasshoppers have ears on their abdomens, for example, while katydids sport them on their front legs. Lacewings? Their ears are on their wings [source: University of Colorado Boulder].
So where did the saying come from? Possibly from the word "acute," meaning sharp or keen. Bugs have acute hearing; they can detect faint sounds, plus those that are high-pitched. In 18th-century England, "cute" was another word for "acute." Perhaps people back then described insects' hearing, or ears, as "cute," meaning they were really good at their job, not adorable [source: Martin].
A picky eater or someone who nibbles modest amounts of food at a meal is often said to "eat like a bird." In other words, the person doesn't eat much. Oh, how false! Birds actually consume a wide array of insects, nectar and other goodies, noshing frequently throughout the day. It may seem like they're not eating much because they eat a small amount at a time, but they are: Some insect-eating songbirds chow down every two seconds! A study by Smithsonian researchers showed that birds, along with lizards and bats, eat so many insects they indirectly benefit plants and help them grow [source: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute].
The amount a bird eats depends on its size. Larger ones may eat a quarter of their body weight each day, while smaller ones up to half. And then there's the petite hummingbird, which famously consumes twice its weight every day in order to maintain its frenetic wing-flapping [source: Moss]. When it comes down to it, accusing someone of eating like a bird really means they're a bit of a pig. Assuming pigs really eat a lot!
The saying "happy as a clam" cropped up in America during the early 19th century, especially in the northeastern states. Clams don't have smiling faces – the simile is derived from the longer expression "happy as a clam at high tide." Didn't grow up ocean-side? Here's what it means: Clams are bivalves -- invertebrates sporting a shell divided into two separate sections. They also have a strong foot that burrows into sand.
People head out to go clamming at low tide, when it's much easier to find the buried bivalves. Thus, clams are supposedly happy when it's high tide and they don't have to worry about people trying to pop them out of the sand and turn them into entrees [source: Know Your Phrase].
Ah, the poor loon. Its name is linked with being crazy. Insane. A lunatic. In reality, it's anything but nuts. Loons are water birds, diving for their meals in spacious lakes and using the water as a runway to take flight. There are five loon species in the world, with the common loon the most widespread in North America [source: Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center].
Common loons are actually pretty cool. They're strikingly attired in summer, sporting ebony heads and bodies covered with an attractive black-and-white pattern. (In winter, they change to a plain dove-gray and white.) Despite rather stocky bodies, they can zip through the air at incredible speeds; migrating loons have topped 70 miles (113 kilometers) per hour [source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology]. But perhaps their most impressive traits are their diving and fishing skills. They can submerge without a splash, and torpedo through the water to catch their prey, gracefully incorporating abrupt 180-degree turns as needed.
So why the "crazy" tag? Common loons have several types of calls, including wails, yodels and tremolos. The tremolos and yodels in particular sound a bit like maniacal laughter, while their signature, eerie, wail sounds hauntingly insane.
If someone says you're crying crocodile tears tears, they don't mean you're sad. They mean you're faking it. You're crying, or pretending to cry, when you're really not sad at all. In fact, you may be quite gleeful. This saying arose out of the belief that crocodiles cry as they devour their prey. Since crocs enjoy their meals, they must therefore be feigning sadness about taking another creature's life.
Crocodiles do shed tears (as do alligators), meaning they have lachrymal glands that produce tears, which lubricate their eyes. And yes, they do sometimes shed these tears while they eat. Researchers at the University of Florida believe the animals get so excited when they're chowing down that air gets blown up through their sinuses and forces tears back up into the eye. Yet while there's no sadness behind their tears, there's no emotion, fake or otherwise, behind them either. Their tears are merely a physiological response, like sweating when you're nervous.
A more obscure expression, "the bee's knees" means something is excellent. Magnificent. Top shelf. But do bees have knees, and if so, are they great? Like all insects, bees have six sections to their legs. Each segment connects to the next by a joint. One of the six sections could be considered more knee-like than the others, but in reality bees do not have knees in the way we think of them. Some posit that since bees have sacs on the back of their leg segments to carry pollen, "the bee's knees" was a reference to the fact that pollen was a good, or excellent, thing.
However, when the phrase became popular in 1920s America, there were other similarly silly animal expressions being bandied about, like "the cat's pajamas" and "the sardine's whiskers." The phrase likely developed simply as a sign of the times. And it couldn't hurt that "bees" and "knees" rhymed, making it fun to utter [source: McCabe].
When you hear this phrase, a picture probably pops into your mind -- someone trying to drag a mule forward by a rope while the mule resists, digging its hooves into the dirt and refusing to budge. Or maybe you're picturing a donkey. If so, are both animals stubborn? For starters, let's discuss their differences. A mule is not an animal species, like a horse or donkey. It's a hybrid, or the product of two other species -- in this case, the pairing of a male donkey with a female horse. Donkeys have 62 chromosomes and horses have 64; mules are born with 63. This odd number of chromosomes means they can't reproduce [source: Lucky Three Ranch].
Donkeys and mules both have reputations as animals with, um, mulish personalities. They're widely seen as stubborn. Willful. Obstinate, even. Guess what? They aren't. A study done by Canterbury Christ Church University and Devon's The Donkey Sanctuary showed that when it came to showing flexibility toward solving a problem (learning to learn), mules came out on top, followed by donkeys, with horses and dogs bringing up the rear. So why the common misperception? Mules -- and donkeys -- are smart. Really smart. They also have a deep-seated tendency toward self-preservation. So they won't let owners overwork them, nor will they typically put themselves in danger. These characteristics led to the "stubborn" label [source: Canterbury Christ Church University].
Everyone knows cats don't really have nine lives. This popular saying got its start in part because felines are a bit mysterious and otherworldly, what with all that sneaking around, leaping great heights and magical disappearances and reappearances. But when people use this comment, they're typically suggesting that cats are able to survive things other animals could not, like falling great distances. Cats are good at surviving falls, but that doesn't mean they have supernatural survival abilities. If they're dropped from a low height (say two or three stories), they won't have time to right themselves and land on all four paws – and could be seriously hurt. If they fall from the top of a high-rise building, they might also be hurt or die from the force of the drop [source: Carlson].
Cats lose their "nine lives" in other ways as well. Outdoor cats get into fights with other felines, get attacked by other animals (like dogs) or struck by motor vehicles -- all pretty commonplace deaths. And one-third of all pet cats in the U.S. will die of cancer [source: Rusk]. You can't get a more ordinary cause of death than that.
The proverb is often used to mean that older people (or animals) can't learn anything new. But it's not really true, either in the human or the canine world. You can teach old dogs plenty of things. In fact, almost any command, skill or trick that you can teach a puppy, you can teach an older dog. It might just take a little longer. Researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine-Vienna worked with 145 border collies ranging in age from 6 months to 14 years old to see how attention and concentration changed with age. First they did two tests to see how quickly dogs responded to objects and humans. The older dogs tended to lose interest in the object alone before the younger dogs did, but if there was a person with the object, the older dogs were as interested as the younger ones [source: Science 2.0]
Your mature pooch may be only too happy to have you believe it's useless for him to learn new things. Especially if there's a nice, soft bed in a warm patch of sun waiting for him. But just as aging humans can keep their minds engaged by doing crossword puzzles and the like, dogs are best served when they're continually challenged mentally. So grab a bag of dog treats and get to work.
The Beagle Brigade is an important part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Find out what how they protect the borders from HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Completely Wrong Sayings About Animals
I was so pleased to learn that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Now my 14-year-old English setter, Riley, has no excuses.
- Carlson, Cynthia. "Dogs aren't color blind -- and 10 other surprising myths about pets." NBC News. 2012. (Oct. 6, 2014) http://www.nbcnews.com/id/40419962/ns/health-pet_health/t/dogs-arent-color-blind-other-surprising-myths-about-pets/#.VDMKPFewTwM
- Canterbury Christ Church University. "Smart Asses! Mules lead the way in intelligent animal league table." May 13, 2013. (Oct. 7, 2014) http://www.canterbury.ac.uk/news/newsRelease.asp?newsPk=2105
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "Common Loon." (Oct. 8, 2014) http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/common_loon/id
- Know Your Phrase. "Happy As a Clam." (Oct. 14, 2014) http://www.knowyourphrase.com/phrase-meanings/happy-as-a-clam.html
- Martin, Gary. "As cute as a bug's ear." Phrases. 2014. (Oct. 6, 2014) http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/as-cute-as-a-bugs-ear.html
- Martin, Gary. "Crocodile tears." Phrases. 2014. (Oct. 6, 2014) http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/104800.html
- Martin, Gary. "The bee's knees." Phrases. 2014. (Oct. 6, 2014) http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/the-bees-knees.html
- McCabe, Steve. "Do Bees Have Knees And, If So, What's So Special About Them?" Focus. July 22, 2009. (Oct. 6, 2014) http://sciencefocus.com/qa/do-bees-have-knees-and-if-so-whats-so-special-about-them
- McConnell, Dr. Carol. "Keep Your Cat Safe: Avoid These 5 Accident-Related Injuries." Vet Street. March 6, 2014. (Oct. 14, 2014) http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/keep-your-cat-safe-avoid-these-5-accident-related-injuries
- Mirsky, Jennifer. "Do You Eat Like a Bird or a Horse? What Does it All Mean?" Real Simple. Aug. 15, 2012. (Oct. 6, 2014) http://simplystated.realsimple.com/2012/08/15/do-you-eat-like-a-bird-or-a-horse-what-does-it-all-mean/
- Rusk, Anthony. "Cancer: Cases likely will rise in aging animals." DVM360 Magazine. March 1, 2005. (Oct. 14, 2014) http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/cancer-cases-likely-will-rise-aging-animals
- Science 2.0. "How Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks" April 1, 2014. (Oct. 15, 2014) http://www.science20.com/news_articles/how_old_dogs_can_learn_new_tricks-133131
- Science Daily. "Bat Boffin Debunks 'Blind' Myth." Oct. 31, 2006. (Oct. 6, 2014) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/10/061028092920.htm
- Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. "PNAS: Eating like a bird helps forests grow." April 19, 2010. (Oct. 9, 2014) http://stri.si.edu/english/about_stri/headline_news/news/article.php?id=1126
- Tennessee's Watchable Wildlife. "Common Loon." (Oct. 7, 2014) http://www.tnwatchablewildlife.org/details.cfm?displayhabitat=&sort=aounumber&typename=TENNESSEE&uid=09042709472995269&commonname=Common%20Loon
- University of Colorado Boulder. "Listen up: crickets have had ears on their legs for more than 50 million years." Jan. 4, 2012. (Oct. 6, 2014) http://www.colorado.edu/news/features/listen-crickets-have-had-ears-their-legs-more-50-million-years-0
- University of Florida. "Crocodile Tears." Oct. 17, 2007. (Oct. 6, 2014) http://news.ufl.edu/archive/2007/10/crocodile-tears-1.html
- Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center. "Loon Study - Frequently Asked Questions." March 13, 2014. (Oct. 8, 2014) http://www.umesc.usgs.gov/terrestrial/migratory_birds/loons/questions.html
- Wild Birds Unlimited. "Educational Resources: Hummingbirds." (Oct. 9, 2014) http://www.wbu.com/education/hummingbirds.html