CLOSE
istock
istock

11 Active Facts About the Australian Shepherd

istock
istock

With its unusual markings and piercing blue eyes, it's hard to ignore an Australian shepherd when it prances by you on the street. Learn more about the fluffy dog and its surprising background.

1. AUSTRALIA IS NOT THEIR NATIVE LAND.

The history of the Australian shepherd is borderline mythical, but one thing is for sure: These dogs do not hail from Australia. It’s widely accepted that these dogs most likely have roots in the Basque region of the Pyrenees Mountains. The little countryside is only about 191 square miles, meaning there wasn’t a lot of work for the local herders and their dogs. According to one version of the tale, these herders came to the United States for work in the late 1800s. Some say they made a pit stop in Australia, while others think the name comes the breed’s affiliation with Basque shepherds that came from Australia. Still, their Basque shepherds bear very little resemblance to the Australian shepherds we know today. 

2. IN FACT, THEY'RE DISTINCTLY AMERICAN. 

Their origins may be hazy, but the breed was perfected here in the U.S. Herders from countries all around the world made their way to the West Coast with their dogs, leading to a lot of interbreeding. Stockmen would breed these work dogs to be alert, intelligent, agile, and adaptable to different terrains. Little thought went into beauty or standard. The Scotch collie, Border collie, and English shepherd are all believed to have contributed to the Australian shepherd bloodline. Another likely culprit is the Australian koolie, a dog with remarkably similar features to the Australian shepherd, such as a merle coat and bright blue eyes. 

3. THE RODEO MADE THEM STARS. 

Australian shepherds enjoyed a huge boom of popularity after World War I. As waves of people headed out West, the energetic dogs found more work outside of just herding sheep. Intelligent and easily trained, the dogs were perfect for the rodeo. One particularly popular dog show was the Jay Sisler show. He and his team of trained dogs were featured in the Disney movies Run, Appaloosa, Run and Stub: The Greatest Cowdog in the West. People all over the country were enthralled with the talented pooches—Stubby, Shorty, and Queenie—as they jumped rope, ran through barrels, and performed tricks. 

4. THEY’RE EYE-CATCHING. 

When people think of Aussies, they normally think of their crystal blue eyes. In fact, some Native American tribes called the breed the ghost eye dog, because of their phantom-like peepers. They were said to be considered sacred and were often avoided

5. THEIR EYES CAN BE MISMATCHED. 

Not all Australian shepherds have blue eyes: they can also be green, amber, hazel or brown, or two different colors. Sometimes, the dogs will have marbled eyes, meaning each of their eyes will be a mix of two or more colors. 

6. MOST OF THEM HAVE MERLE COATS. 

Of the four registered colors of Aussies, the blue merle is the most recognizable. Breeders attempted to breed the other colors out of the dog, but found that dogs with the double merle gene faced a lot of health problems like blindness. Today, you can find Aussies in many different colors, although only black, red, red merle, and blue merle are accepted by the American Kennel Club.

7. THEY OFTEN HAVE NO TAILS. 

When you’re doing hard work like herding, long ears and tails can get in the way. To avoid injury, many workers would dock their dogs’ ears and tails. The tail was somewhat bred out of this breed, as one in five Aussies are born with a naturally bobbed tail. Show dogs are expected to have either docked or naturally docked tails. 

8. THERE’S PLENTY OF WORK FOR THEM. 

Thanks to their working dog background, Aussies are well-equipped for a number of different jobs. Besides herding and performing tricks, the canines also make great search and rescue dogs, as well as therapy dogs. 

9. THEY MIGHT HERD YOUR CHILDREN. 

Aussies are very loving companions, but they need to stay active. Without proper stimulation, they may grow bored and restless. Left alone, their natural instincts might kick in, leading to them to start herding other things in your house. (Watch out for your children getting bunched in an orderly herd and pushed into a fenced area.)   

10. THEY'RE POPULAR.

According to the AKC, this unique dog is the 18th most popular breed in the United States. That puts them ahead of Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, and Cavalier King Charles spaniels.

11. ONE WAS A FRISBEE SUPERSTAR 

In the '70s, Australian Shepherd Hyper Hank and his owner Eldon McIntire found a lot of fame for their expert Frisbee routine. The talented disc duo won contests across the country, performed at the pre-show of Super Bowl XII, and even spent some time with the Carters at the White House. As his name suggests, the fluffy dog had a lot of energy.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
travel
The Real Bay of Pigs: Big Major Cay in the Bahamas
iStock
iStock

When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Christine Colby
arrow
job secrets
13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios