Underdog mythbusters

Spider's web © Guy Edwardes/2020VISION

Some wildlife is more popular than others, which is often based on alleged characteristics or 'urban legends'. This is why we're busting the myths to defend our wildlife underdogs.

Magpie

One for sorrow
two for joy
three for a girl
four for a boy
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told...

They don't enjoy the best of reputations and many superstitions revolve around magpies. But how true are these beliefs?

Reputation:
Magpies love shiny objects and are well-known for stealing rings, keychains, necklaces and more. They also feed on the eggs and chicks of smaller songbirds.

Reality:
There is no evidence that magpies are particularly kleptomaniac. This myth is likely based on the French play La Pie Voleuse from the 19th century - in which a servant is sentenced to death for stealing silverware from her master, when the real thief is his pet magpie - and the sheer inquisitiveness of these birds.  

Magpie

Magpie © Bob Coyle

It is true, though, that magpies do prey on other birds' chicks and eggs. Their diet is mainly vegetarian in winter and consists of ground invertebrates in summer, but in the busy breeding season, magpies won't reject an easy meal in the form of another bird's eggs or chicks. However, studies suggest that this predation doesn't have an influence on songbird populations.

In fact, magpies are one of the most intelligent birds with a similar brain-to-body ratio to great apes or aquatic mammals. They have shown the ability to make and use tools, imitate human speech, grieve, play games, and work in teams and can recognise their reflection in a mirror. 

They are also beautiful birds with an iridescent blue shining in the sunlight. Tim Birkhead, author of The Magpie, hits the nail right on the head: "If magpies were rare, people would travel a long way to see them".

If magpies were rare, people would travel a long way to see them.

Spiders

If you want to live and thrive, let a spider run alive.

Spiders are probably one of our favourite wildlife 'villains' and many people suffer from Arachnophobia.

Reputation:
Spiders are aggressive and dangerous and crawl on you when you sleep.

Reality:
Just like most other wildlife, spiders just want to go on about their day minding their own business. They have no interest in attacking or approaching a human to bite or crawl into their mouth. Although there are spiders in the UK that are capable of biting us, none can do any serious harm except a little pain and swelling.

If this hasn't convinced you to appreciate these eight-legged fellas, there's more:

Garden orb spider

Garden orb spider © Chris Maguire

  • They keep your house clean: they feed on insects we might see as pests, such as flies, mosquitoes and moths
  • They keep the balance of the ecosystem by feeding on aphids and caterpillars
  • The Ancient Chinese regarded them as symbols of luck: spiders were called ximu or 'happy insect' and it would be a particularly good sign if one dropped from the ceiling
  • Without spiders, we wouldn't have Spiderman!

Snakes

Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?
Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Reputation:
Snakes are dangerous, venomous and slimy.

Reality:
Snakes live a rather clandestine life - they are often well-camouflaged so even if they are all around us, we don't normally notice unless we accidentally disturb them. This void of knowledge is filled by media and films depicting snakes as aggressive man-eaters. The truth is that snakes shy away from human interaction.

Adder

Adder © Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

Plus, snakes are not slimy at all. They are, in fact, dry and smooth to the touch. In the UK, we have four different species of which only one, the adder, is venomous. However, they would only bite as last resort if you bother them too much. The last fatality in Britain occurred more than 40 years ago in Scotland. 

If you come across a snake in the wild, don't panic. If you act sensibly, it will leave you alone. Make sure to observe its intricate pattern from a safe distance. 

Wasps

The wasp and all his numerous family
I look upon as a major calamity.
He throws open his nest with prodigality,
But I distrust his waspitality.

Ogden Nash

Reputation:
Wasps are aggressive, wicked and every outdoor gathering's party pooper. 

Wasp

German wasp © Vaughn Matthews

Reality:
Firstly, as insect predators, wasps play a vital role in the ecosystem. An ecosystem without predators can get heavily imbalanced. In fact, it has been estimated that the social wasps of the UK might account for 14 million kilograms of insect prey across the summer. Just like bees, wasps are important pollinators and as such, they face the same problems as bees.

The wasps that disrupt our picnics are mostly social wasps. They live in colonies and build nests, but they only make up a handful of the over 9,000 different species that we have in the UK. Social worker wasps collect prey such as caterpillars and other 'pests' to feed the colony's larvae which, in turn, secrete a sugary liquid that feeds the workers. Towards the end of the summer, no new larvae are produced, hence, the wasps' food source is gone. Furthermore, the queen abandons the colony to search for a place to hibernate, leaving the workers confused and starving - no wonders they'll be jumping on every quick meal! So, yes, it can be annoying, but try to show some sympathy. The workers will die in winter and the queen will emerge in spring and build a new colony.   

Learn to love

It can be hard to love animals that we've learned to hate and fear. Most of the preconceptions are based on a anthropomorphisation of wildlife - an attribution of human characteristics such as evil or wicked onto our wildlife. If we learn about the good they do for us and the fascinating characteristics they have, maybe we can learn to love our wildlife underdogs.

Learn to Love
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