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10 Big Facts About Saint Bernards

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When you think of Saint Bernards, you probably think of the massive canines of the Swiss Alps, depicted in paintings delivering brandy to lost or stranded hikers. While they were amazing rescue dogs, those rescues involved very little bartending. Learn about how the myth got started, plus more facts about the fluffy mountain dog.

1. THEIR ANCESTORS WERE LIKELY MOLOSSERS.

Like other dogs bred in the Alps—including Bernese mountain dogs and Entlebuch cattle dogs—the history of the breed is a somewhat mysterious. Many believe that they originate from molossers: mastiff-like dogs brought to Switzerland by the Romans roughly 2000 years ago. The large war dogs bred with local mountain dogs, creating the beginnings of the Saint Bernard line. Valley farms and Alpine dairies used the hefty dogs for guarding, herding, and drafting. At the time, the dog was known as Talhund ("valley dog") or Bauernhund ("farm dog"). 

2. MONKS PUT THEM TO WORK IN THE SWISS ALPS. 

Long before airplanes, the only way to travel from the Entremont Valley to Italy was via a snowy path. The Mont-Joux pass was extremely treacherous: temperatures could drop as low as -22°F, and the pass was covered in dozens of feet of snow most of the year. (Robbers and looters waiting to prey on unsuspecting hikers only added to the danger.)  

Around 1050 CE, a monk named Bernard De Menthon came to the pass and began to clean up the area. He evicted the criminals and set up a hospice to give adventurers a place to recover for a few days from their travels. In 1124, Bernard was canonized as a saint and the pass he helped restore was named after him. Still, Saint Bernards did not come to Saint Bernard Pass until hundreds of years later, although the exact date is a little fuzzy—thanks to a fire in the 16th century, the archives containing their exact origin story were destroyed.

However, based on other mentions in historic texts, experts believe the dogs were first brought to the pass's hospice between 1660 and 1670. The canines were originally used there for guarding and companionship—after all, the grounds could be very lonely in the winter months. 

3. THEY'RE HERE TO HELP.

Eventually, the monks inhabiting the hospice discovered that the Saint Bernards had all the makings of an ideal rescue dog: They were great at clearing paths, could predict incoming avalanches, and, thanks to their excellent sense of smell, could detect a body buried under 20 feet of snow. (And once they located someone trapped under a snow heap, they could use their huge paws to dig them out.) In the three centuries that the hospice used the helpful dogs, it's estimated that they saved upwards of 2000 people. Trains and airplanes have lessened the need for rescue dogs, but monks continue to raise them to this day out of tradition.

4. ONE DOG WAS A PARTICULARLY SKILLED HELPER.

As legend has it, Barry the Saint Bernard was an amazing rescue dog that saved somewhere between 45 and 100 people. Barry's most impressive rescue involved finding a dying 12-year-old boy in the snow and carrying him to safety on his back. Sadly, the courageous dog was supposedly killed by one of Napoleon’s soldiers, who mistook him for a wolf. The local hero's fur was used to create a statue—complete with the iconic barrel collar—which is currently on display at the Bern Natural History Museum.

As moving as that tale is, most of it is completely false. It's possible that the dog saved 40 lives, but he definitely never rescued any frozen boys in the snow—apparently, that story was circulating years before Barry was even born. Even the story of his death is highly exaggerated; Barry died of old age after living to the ripe old age of 12 years. (It's also worth noting that the dog never wore the cliched barrel around his neck, either.) 

5. SPEAKING OF BARREL COLLARS, A TEEN CREATED THAT MYTH.

In cartoons and works of art, Saint Bernards are often depicted wearing barrels of booze around their necks, supposedly with the intention of helping cold travelers warm up. The rescue dogs never actually wore these miniature barrels, but they did carry around packs filled with food and water. 

The misconception that the dogs ever sported the barrels comes from a 17-year-old painter in 1820s England. Edwin Landseer painted a work called Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler, which depicted two Saint Bernards coming to the rescue of an injured man. One is barking in alarm, while the other—sporting the barrel in question—attempts to revive the hiker. Landseer later explained that the barrel was filled with brandy, and thus a myth was born. Of course, we know today that while alcohol makes us feel warmer, it actually restricts blood flow and lowers body temperature. Carrying around tiny kegs would not have been the best strategy for reviving avalanche victims.

6. MONKS TRIED TO IMPROVE THEM. 

After one particularly hard winter, the monks attempted to cross the breed with the long-haired Newfoundland to give their rescue pooches a thicker winter coat. The plan backfired, as the longer fur captured matted snow and ice and weighed the poor dogs down. Today, you can still see the effects of the decision, as the breed has both long- and short-haired dogs. 

7. DON'T OVER-BATHE THEM. 

Saint Bernards have a lot of fur, but you don’t have to worry about frequent trips to the groomer. They have an oily, water-resistant coat, which originally warded off snow and ice when they resided in the mountains. It’s best not to over-wash them because soap will strip away necessary oils in their fur.  

8. THEY’RE GREAT WITH CHILDREN. 

Saint Bernards are gentle giants. They’re calm and patient, with an eagerness to please. This easy-going temperament makes the dog a great choice for a family pet. They’re very intelligent, so training is easy, but it’s important to start at a young age while they’re still small and easy to control. Sometimes the large dogs are unaware of their size, making training essential in order to prevent them from bowling over guests and children. 

9. THEY GROW UP FAST. 

Saint Bernard puppies are tiny things that weigh just 1 1/2 pounds at birth. Adult dogs can weigh as much as 180 pounds, so the pups have a lot of growing to do. It can take as long as three years for them to stop growing, although most of the growing happens in the first year. By three months old, Saint puppies can weigh as much as 40 pounds. From there, they will usually gain about three to five pounds a week. These growth spurts proved difficult for crew members on the set of Beethoven’s 2nd; the family movie featured just four puppies, but it took over 100 canine actors to portray them because they grew so fast. 

10. EXPECT A LOT OF DROOLING 

Thanks to the Saint’s unusual head and jaw shape, their lips and loose skin hang down, meaning they drool more than other breeds. This behavior tends to get worse when the dogs are hungry, overheated, or excited. To minimize the puddles left in their wake, try to keep them cool and prepare food out of sight. Some devoted owners will even carry around a drool rag to clean their pooch's muzzle every once in a while. 

All images courtesy of iStock.

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14 Bold Facts About Bald Eagles
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Bald eagles are powerful symbols of America—but there’s a whole lot more to these quirky birds.

1. YOUNG BALD EAGLES AREN'T BALD.

A young bald eagle with a brown head on a beach.
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So obviously adult bald eagles aren't really bald, either—their heads have bright white plumage that contrasts with their dark body feathers, giving them a "bald" look. But young bald eagles have mostly brown heads. In fact, for the first four or five years of their lives, they move through a complicated series of different plumage patterns; in their second year, for instance, they have white bellies.

2. BALD EAGLES SOUND SO SILLY THAT HOLLYWOOD DUBS OVER THEIR VOICES.

A red-tailed hawk.
A red-tailed hawk's screech is usually dubbed over the bald eagle's weaker scream.
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It's a scene you’ve probably seen countless times in movies and on TV: An eagle flies overhead and emits a rough, piercing scream. It's a classic symbol of wilderness and adventure. The only problem? Bald eagles don't make that sound.

Instead, they emit a sort of high-pitched giggle or a weak scream. These noises are so unimpressive that Hollywood sound editors often dub over bald eagle calls with far more impressive sounds: the piercing, earthy screams of a smaller bird, the red-tailed hawk. If you were a fan of The Colbert Report, you might remember the show's iconic CGI eagle from the opener—it, too, is making that red-tailed hawk cry. Listen for yourself and decide who sounds more impressive.

3. THEY EAT TRASH AND STOLEN FOOD.

Two bald eagles guard their prey against two magpies on a snowy field.
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Picture a majestic bald eagle swooping low over a lake and catching a fish in its powerful claws. Yes, bald eagles eat a lot of fish—but they don't always catch them themselves. They've perfected the art of stealing fish from other birds such as ospreys, chasing them down until they drop their prey.

Bald eagles will also snack on gulls, ducks, rabbits, crabs, amphibians, and more. They'll scavenge in dumpsters, feed on waste from fish processing plants, and even gorge on carrion (dead, decaying animals).

4. BALD EAGLES USUALLY MATE FOR LIFE ...

Two bald eagles perched on a tree.
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Trash and carrion aside, they're pretty romantic animals. Bald eagles tend to pair up for life, and they share parenting duties: The male and the female take turns incubating the eggs, and they both feed their young.

5. … AND THEY LIVE PRETTY LONG LIVES.

Two bald eagles sitting on a rock.
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Those romantic partnerships are even more impressive because bald eagles can survive for decades. In 2015, a wild eagle in Henrietta, New York, died at the record age of 38. Considering that these birds pair up at 4 or 5 years of age, that's a lot of Valentine's Days.

6. THEY HOLD THE RECORD FOR THE LARGEST BIRD'S NEST.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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Bald eagles build enormous nests high in the treetops. The male and female work on the nest together, and this quality time helps them cement their lifelong bond. Their cozy nurseries consist of a framework of sticks lined with softer stuff such as grass and feathers. If the nest serves them well during the breeding season, they'll keep using it year after year. And, like all homeowners, they can't resist the thought of renovating and adding to their abode. Every year, they'll spruce it up with a whopping foot or two of new material.

On average, bald eagle nests are 2-4 feet deep and 4-5 feet wide. But one pair of eagles near St. Petersburg, Florida, earned the Guinness World Record for largest bird’s nest: 20 feet deep and 9.5 feet wide. The nest weighed over two tons.

7. FEMALES ARE LARGER THAN MALES.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
iStock

In many animal species, males are (on average) larger than females. Male gorillas, for example, dwarf their female counterparts. But for most birds of prey, it's the opposite. Male bald eagles weigh about 25 percent less than females.

Scientists aren't sure why there's such a size difference. One reason might be the way they divide up their nesting duties. Females take the lead in arranging the nesting material, so being bigger might help them take charge. Also, they spend longer incubating the eggs than males, so their size could intimidate would-be egg thieves.

If you're trying to tell male and female eagles apart, this size difference may help you—especially since both sexes have the same plumage patterns.

8. TO IDENTIFY THEM, LOOK AT THE WINGS.

A bald eagle flies across the water.
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People often get excited about a big soaring bird and yell "It's an eagle!” just before it swoops closer and … oops, it's a vulture. Here's a handy identification tip. Bald eagles usually soar with their wings almost flat. On the other hand, the turkey vulture—another dark, soaring bird—holds its wings up in a shallow V shape called a dihedral. A lot of large hawks also soar with slightly raised wings.

9. THEY'RE COMEBACK KIDS.

Baby eagle chicks in a nest.
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Before European settlers arrived, bald eagles were abundant across the U.S. But with settlement came habitat destruction, and the settlers viewed the eagles as competition for game and as a threat to livestock. So many eagles were killed that in 1940 Congress passed an act to protect the birds.

Unfortunately, another threat rose up at about that time. Starting after World War II, farmers and public health officials used an insecticide called DDT. The chemical worked well to eradicate mosquitos and agricultural pests—but as it traveled up the food chain, it began to heavily affect birds of prey. DDT made eagle eggshells too thin and caused the eggs to break. A 1963 survey found just 471 bald eagle pairs in the lower 48 states.

DDT was banned in the early 1970s, and conservationists began to breed bald eagles in captivity and reintroduce them in places across America. Luckily, this species made a spectacular recovery. Now the lower 48 states boast over 9700 nesting pairs.

10. THEY'RE UNIQUELY NORTH AMERICAN.

An African fish eagle flies over the water.
The African fish eagle is a relative of the North American bald eagle.
iStock

You've probably heard of America's other eagle: the golden eagle. This bird lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. But the bald eagle is only found in North America. It lives across much of Canada and the U.S., as well as northern parts of Mexico.

Though it may be North American, the bald eagle has seven close relatives that are found throughout the world. They all belong to the genus Haliaeetus, which comes—pretty unimaginatively—from the Latin words for "sea" and "eagle." One relative, the African fish eagle, is a powerful symbol in its own right. It represents several countries; for example, it's the national symbol of Zambia, and graces the South Sudanese, Malawian, and Namibian coats of arms.

11. THEY'RE AERIAL DAREDEVILS.

A bald eagle carries a fish off in its talons.
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It seems too weird to be true: While flying, bald eagles sometimes grab each other's feet and spin while plummeting to the earth. Scientists aren't sure why they do this—perhaps it's a courtship ritual or a territorial battle. Usually, the pair will separate before hitting the ground (as seen in this remarkable set of photographs). But sometimes they hold tight and don't let go. These two male bald eagles locked talons and hit the ground with their feet still connected. One subsequently escaped and the other was treated for talon wounds.

12. THEIR EYES ARE AMAZING.

Close-up of a bald eagle's face.
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What if you could close your eyes and still see? Besides the usual pair of eyelids, bald eagles have a see-through eyelid called a nictitating membrane. They can close this membrane to protect their eyes while their main eyelids remain open. The membrane also helps moisten and clean their eyes.

Eagles also have sharper vision than people, and their field of vision is wider. Plus, they can see ultraviolet light. Both of those things mean the expression "eagle eye" is spot-on.

13. THEY MIGRATE … SORT OF.

A bald eagle sits in a snowy tree.
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If you're a bald eagle that nests in northern Canada, you'll probably head south for the winter to avoid the punishing cold. Many eagles fly south for the winter and return north for the summer—as do plenty of other bird species (and retired Canadians). But not all bald eagles migrate. Some of them, including individuals in New England and Canada's Maritime provinces, stick around all year. Whether or not a bird migrates depends on how old it is and how much food is available.

14. THEY CAN SWIM … SORT OF.

A bald eagle
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There are several videos online—like the one above—that show a bald eagle swimming in the sea, rowing itself to shore with its huge wings. Eagles have hollow bones and fluffy down, so they can float pretty well. But why swim instead of soar? Sometimes, an eagle will swoop down and grab an especially weighty fish, then paddle it to shore to eat.

Note that the announcer in the video above says that the eagle's talons are "locked" on a fish that's too heavy to carry. In fact, those lockable talons are an urban legend.

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New Health-Monitoring Litter Box Could Save You a Trip to the Vet
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Unsure if your cat is sick or just acting aloof per usual? A “smart toilet” for your fur baby could help you decide whether a trip to the vet is really necessary.

Enter the Pet Care Monitor: More than a litter box, the receptacle is designed to analyze cat urine for health issues, The Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo reports. Created by the Japan-based Sharp Corporation—better known for consumer electronics such as TVs, mobile phones, and the world's first LCD calculator—the product will be available for purchase on the company’s website starting July 30 (although shipping limitations may apply).

Sensors embedded in the monitor can measure your cat’s weight and urine volume, as well as the frequency and duration of toilet trips. That information is then analyzed by an AI program that compares it to data gleaned from a joint study between Sharp Corp and Tottori University in Japan. If there are any red flags, a report will be sent directly to your smartphone via an application called Cocoro Pet. The monitor could be especially useful for keeping an eye on cats with a history of kidney and urinary tract problems.

If you have several cats, the company offers sensors to identify each pet, allowing separate data sets to be collected and analyzed. (Each smart litter box can record the data of up to three cats.)

The Pet Care Monitor costs about $225, and there’s an additional monthly fee of roughly $3 for the service. Sharp Corporation says it will continue developing health products for pets, and it has already created a leg sensor that can tell if a dog is nervous by measuring its heart and respiratory rates.

[h/t The Asahi Shimbun]

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