@Gene Weingarten goes all ‘Myth Buster’ about owls and outages (and snakes)


(Eric Shansby)
Gene Weingarten
Columnist September 25, 2013

I was reading a story in the New York Times the other day when I came upon this sentence, buried at the bottom of the 14th paragraph: “Last month, reports surfaced in Oklahoma of great horned owls dropping snakes onto utility poles, thereby causing frequent power outages.”

Frequent power outages? Really? From clumsy owls dropping snakes?

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

I immediately fired off a highly skeptical e-mail to the writer of the story, Jon Mooallem, gently implying that he had invented the whole thing, perhaps as an experiment to see if readers ever actually make it to the 14th paragraph. Jon sent me a link to his original source material, which checked out. He added that his research had also confirmed that similar outages have been caused by “seabirds dropping fish.”

And you thought investigative journalism was dead!

It turns out that there are a lot of bull snakes in Oklahoma, and at six to eight feet, they are long enough to bridge exposed power lines, creating an electrical arc that is fatal to them and to continuous power service. Although utility companies have figured out how to prevent the snakes from slithering into their outdoor substations — there are ground-level snake-deterrence devices — there isn’t much they can do about airborne snake bombardment. And there is absolutely nothing they can do about the inept bombardiers; young owls may be able to perform a creepy 270-degree rotation of their heads, like a demon being exorcised, but they are famously clumsy with their talons, particularly in full flight with a still-wriggling meal.

Now, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking: Don’t the owls get zapped, too, when they land to retrieve their prey, now cooked for their further dining pleasure? Apparently, a sudden powerline snake-fry produces a terrifying spark and crackle, which is particularly vivid at night, when owls feed. The owls beat it out of there.

This all got me thinking. In our deeply cynical world, how does one distinguish facts that are strange but true from facts that are made up by some sophomoric smart aleck? Consider the following:

■ Not only can a butterfly fluttering its wings theoretically cause a hurricane weeks later and hundreds of miles away, but it has actually happened at least four times since 1920.

■ Localized street flooding is frequently caused by unintentionally synchronized toilet flushing during commercial breaks in big televised sporting events.

■ Traffic jams in certain parts of California are frequently caused by garbage bags filled with dead chickens.

■ The third leading cause of car accidents in 2011 was people getting distracted while trying to turn their GPS voice off.

■ Nearly one-third of the cases of listeria in the United States have been traced to poorly angled sneeze guards over salad bars.

■ Seventy percent of all so-called elevator delays are the result of ignorance: Most elevator call buttons are toggles, meaning they reset when pressed a second time. Persons double-pressing are canceling their call.

■ Well over 40 percent of all Internet slowdowns, internationally, occur because of upticks in Facebook “likes.”

■ Almost half the incidents of “turbulence” in airplane flights is caused not by atmospheric conditions, but by pilots complying with FAA regulations to test emergency altitude-stabilization equipment.

Actually, one of these things is true.* Can you guess which?

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine. *The true fact is the one about the chickens.

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