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Spooky birds

Mark Faherty
Eastern Screech-Owl

Though we’re back to short-sleeve weather and barely a leaf has reached the ground, I assure you it is indeed late October, which means that All Hallows Eve is upon us. Somehow, in my years of filing these reports, I’ve never touched on the spooky birds of horror: crows, ravens, and owls. But it’s time for those official birds of Halloween to shine, or more appropriately, to scare.

We have three species of large, black corvid around here – the familiar American Crow, the lesser known Fish Crow, and the recently arrived Common Raven. Of these, the Fish Crow can be dismissed for Halloween given its less than scary, nasal, Fran Drescher-esque call. But regular American crows and ravens are in full demand at this creepiest time of the year.

Why are crows so associated with death and general spookiness, anyway? When you dress like the Grim Reaper, hang around in groups known as “murders” and either kill things or scavenge dead things, it’s really no wonder. From ancient cave paintings to Poe to Hitchcock, corvids, which includes crows and ravens, have long been seen as death’s creepy companions. During the plague, the doctors wore weird, beaked crow-looking masks filled with herbs they thought would keep the bad humors out, which wasn’t great PR for the crow brand, either. Neither was Hitchcock’s The Birds, which had literal murders of crows joining forces with gulls to lay waste to the people of a quaint seaside village.

You know about murders of crows, but did you know a flock of ravens was an “unkindness”? These playful, unscientific collective nouns came from 15th century English hunters, but don’t reflect biology. I suppose ravens are unkind to whatever creature they aim to eat, but so is a chickadee — ravens are very social, good parents, and kinder to each other than many people. Of course, Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem ensured that ravens would be considered kind “nevermore.” In reality, the only thing frightening about ravens is how smart they are, and as of the last ten years, you can now find these bright birds nesting in every town on the Cape.

Owls, on the other hand, aren’t always considered creepy — many cultures considered them wise thanks to those forward-facing eyes and that intense, knowing stare — but they own the night, and you can’t have a scary movie soundtrack without them. Films and shows looking to convey nocturnal creepiness often use the familiar old Great Horned Owl, but the species used more often is one you’ve probably not heard of, the Tawny Owl of Europe. Their spine-tingling wail is a notch creepier than most owls, and though you won’t find them on IMDB, they’ve made thousands of uncredited film appearances.

A more local owl, a rare one you’ll mainly find on the islands, is tailor-made for Halloween. The Barn Owl is ghostly pale, hangs out in dark, abandoned buildings, and has a tendency to fly at you on silent wings then do this. To a superstitious 16th century peasant, this was a hell beast, but farmers now know that with their high metabolism and all-rodent diet, they are the best free pest control you can get. With more frequent off-island sightings from Orleans to Plymouth, keep an ear out for these ghostly owls in an old barn near you.

Of course, with our modern sensibilities, we know that birds are just birds and not Satan’s attachés or dead-eyed homicidal maniacs. But just to be safe, if you see Tippi Hedren rolling into your seaside village trailing a cloud of crows, you might want to head for the hills.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.