Dear Bird Folks,
I went shopping for Halloween decorations today and among the usual vampire, ghost and zombie items was a large selection of owl stuff. That got me wondering, why so many owls at Halloween? Do owls really belong with other such scary creatures?
– Jack, Dennis Port, MA
Yes, they do, Jack,
Owls most certainly belong with those other scary creatures. In fact, they are actually scarier than the others because owls are real and the other creatures don’t exist. Despite what we see at the movies and on TV, there are no vampires, or ghosts and certainly no zombies (if you don’t count Larry King). Owls, on the other hand, are not only very real but they will kill and eat almost anything that moves, including each other. Zombies don’t even do that.
Everything about owls is scary. In addition to being vicious hunters, they move under cover of darkness and are deadly silent in flight. (Owls invented stealth technology long before the U.S. military.) Don’t forget about the way owls turn their heads, which seems almost supernatural. Plus, the sounds owls make are the creepiest in all of nature. Yes, owls are the complete package of scariness.
When we think of owls calling at night, most people think of the hoots of the Great Horned Owl. But those hoots aren’t scary. They are more like the serene tones of a nightingale when compared to the bloodcurdling scream of the Barn Owl. It’s hard to describe in words the truly terrifying sounds a Barn Owl can make, but just imagine the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard, a high-speed dentist drill and the voice of Gilbert Gottfried all rolled into one. To make things worse, Barn Owls, as their name suggests, often live in old buildings and barns. I can’t imagine what the early farmers did when they first heard such hair-raising sounds coming out of their own barn. If I were a farmer, I would have let the cows milk themselves that night. If you’ve never heard the sound of a Barn Owl, try to find it online. But I warn you, once you hear it, you’ll spend the next six months sleeping with the lights on. Really.
In addition to their terrifying sounds, owls also look evil. Some have ear tufts, which, in the dark, could easily be confused with devil horns, especially to folks who believed in such things. And then there is their ability to turn their heads. Even though owls can’t turn their heads completely around (only three quarters of the way), seeing one do it for the first time undoubtedly looks like a scene for The Exorcist.
Owls also have the ability to travel silently and appear suddenly, as if by magic. When birds fly, turbulence is created as the air passes over their wings. This turbulence produces an audible sound. Flying geese, doves and even chickadees can be heard at close range. But owls have special feathers to break up this turbulence and muffle the sound. One night I heard a Saw-wet Owl calling from the other side of an open field. I called back (even I can imitate a Saw-wet Owl) in the hope of drawing the bird closer. My owl impersonation worked well, too well. A nanosecond after I made the call, the owl was staring at me from a branch a foot above my head. I never heard or saw the bird fly towards me; it just appeared. Even though I was startled, I still thought it was pretty cool. But I’m sure there once was a time when folks believed that a magically appearing owl was actually a visit from the spirit of a long-departed relative. Perhaps today some people still believe that, but not me. My relatives didn’t even want to be near me when they were alive.
From Africa to Europe, to the Americas, assorted cultures have feared owls for generations. Many groups thought the birds were a sign of death, and it’s easy to see why. Back then there wasn’t any PBS or National Geographic specials to watch on TV…or even any TVs to watch at all. Folks had to figure things out on their own. Sometimes they discovered logical explanations for natural occurrences, but other times they based their conclusions on superstitions. I have an aunt in Ireland who avoids any kind of owls. She claims the birds are bad luck. Fortunately, I’ve not fallen victim to such behavior. None of that superstitious silliness has affected me…knock on wood.
To be fair, there are some societies that welcome owls. In parts of France, a visit from an owl is viewed as sign of a good harvest; the Inuit in Greenland see owls as a source of guidance. Plus, I think we’ve all heard the term “wise old owl.” That’s because owls have long been associated with knowledge. And more recently, wise owls have been connected to something even greater than knowledge…potato chips.
Yes, Jack, owls absolutely belong in the store with vampires, ghosts, zombies and all of the other Halloween icons. Owls still can produce panic in people (well, some people) and possess unique nocturnal powers. Whenever you go out at night, whether it’s on All Hallows’ Eve or any other eve, there’s a good chance that an owl or two will be watching you and you won’t know it. They are like the NSA…only fluffier.