For the Birds Radio Program: Triskaidekaphobia

Original Air Date: March 13, 2009 Rerun Dates: March 12, 2015

Unlike humans, birds aren’t superstitious–they base their fears on reality.

Duration: 4′35″


Every now and then another Friday the Thirteenth comes our way. The day fills some people with dread—for being ostensibly the most intelligent species on the planet, we are also the only one that is superstitious—that is, unless we define a superstition as a belief or notion not based on reason or knowledge. Birds believe many things not based on reason or knowledge, at least if knowledge is something we gain by a learning process. Most birds are fearful of snakes and owls even if they’ve never before encountered them or had any other opportunity to learn about them, but that knowledge was born into them as a powerful instinct, not learned, and it’s a pretty sensible instinct to have. Birds avoid other things that seem potentially dangerous, though they have a difficult balancing act between adapting to or fleeing new environments as they’re migrating through thousands of miles of unfamiliar terrain. Someone once told me that of course birds aren’t afraid on Friday the Thirteenths because they can’t count and don’t understand numbers. But I’m not exactly sure what good understanding numbers is if we can randomly pick a perfectly good prime number and label it scary. Of course, some people say the number isn’t random—it may be the number of people at the Last Supper or all manner of other things. But every good and bad thing involves numbers of people and things—it’s not the number that causes things. We may indeed be, overall, smarter than birds, but there are quite a few measures of intelligence on which I’d put my money on birds outranking us.

Hummingbirds and most songbirds know when, where, and how to migrate without learning or being taught—again, this is instinctive, not learned knowledge. It’s pretty cold up in north country right now, but we’re in the thick of spring migration, and if you go to you can watch them progress. That map shows the dates they show up in each place, and the map makes it be clear that hummingbirds base their decisions to move on the time of year and the weather, not on whether a day happens to fall on a Friday the Thirteenth.

Being fearful of the number 13—Triskaidekaphobia—is not much of a problem this year. It is exceptionally rare that we have two months with Friday the Thirteenths back to back—it can only happen when February has one—but with so much genuine bad news right now, the media seems to have ignored this unusual situation. Maybe they think reminding us about Friday the Thirteenth will make people even more fearful or they figure there’s enough real bad news to report.

Either way, it’s amusing to think about our own superstitions. The word auspicious comes from auspices–the old practice in augury of examining or watching birds to predict the future. How they flew and fed were ominous. Finding one in your house could portend a death. And augurs often cut open dead bird to examine the organs—depending on how the intestines twisted or this or that, they’d make a prediction. Whether or not the augur said it was a lucky day for some person, it was a decidedly unlucky day for the bird. We still have superstitions about birds—we think hearing an owl hooting foretells a death, when really, considering that auto collisions are one of the top causes of deaths for owls, in many cases, when an owl hoots close enough to people to be heard, the death it’s foretelling is its own.