Posts Tagged ‘Halloween’

Halloween, Owls and the Headless Hawk

October 30, 2008
The Tropical Screech Owl

The Tropical Screech Owl

Once was a place called Sleepy Hollow, a haunted region from where a contagion blew forth; an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land.  A birder lived there.  His name was Ichabod. He especially loved Cranes.

Rockwell's Ichabod of the Cranes

Rockwell's Ichabod of the Cranes

The chief bird of the region was known as the Spectre of Sleepy Hollow, a mighty hawk, which had been heard several times of late and who, it was said, spent the nights among the graves in the church-yard.  Many sought to add it to their life lists; many failed.

Not far from the church, over a deep black part of the stream, was a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime.  This was the favorite haunt of the headless hawk and the place where he was most often sought by lonely birders.

On this witching night, Halloween, Ichabod the Birder pursued his way homeward.  The hour was dismal and so was Ichabod whose lady love had rejected him that very afternoon. In the dead hush of midnight no signs of life appeared nearby except the occasional melancholy chirp of a cricket or perhaps the long, lonely hoot of an owl, far off in the trees.

As Ichabod wended his way, by swamp and stream and awful woodland, every sound of nature, at that witching hour, fluttered his excited imagination: the moan of the whip-poor-will, a bird which is only heard at night, the boding cry of the tree-toad, that harbinger of storm; the dreary hooting of the screech-owl, or the sudden rustling in the thicket of birds frightened from their roost.

Western Screech Owl

Western Screech Owl

In the centre of the road stood an enormous tree, which towered like a giant above all the other trees of the neighborhood, and formed a kind of landmark. Its limbs were gnarled, and fantastic, large enough to form trunks for ordinary trees, twisting down almost to the earth, and rising again into the air. . . .

As Ichabod approached this fearful tree, he felt a blast of miasmatic air sweeping sharply through the dry branches. . . . In the dark shadow he beheld something huge, misshapen, black and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.

What was to be done? To turn and fly was now too late; and besides, what chance was there of escaping ghost or goblin, if such it was, which could ride upon the wings of the wind?

Just then the shadowy object of alarm put itself in motion, and, though the night was dark and dismal, yet the form of the unknown might now in some degree be ascertained. He appeared to be a hawk of large dimensions.

On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure this bird in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck, on perceiving that the hawk was headless!

Groping for his binoculars, Ichabod failed to notice that the hawk was winging straight toward him.  Ichabod’s horse noticed though and broke into a run. Away they dashed, Ichabod’s flimsy garments fluttered in the air, as he stretched his long lanky body away over his horse’s head, in the eagerness of his flight. . . .

Just then he heard the beating of the hawk’s wings close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath. Now Ichabod cast a look behind and saw the hawk rising in the sky, as if to stoop down and strike.  Too late Ichabod saw the tree branch which encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash—he was tumbled headlong into the dust.

The next morning Ichabod’s horse was found without his saddle,  and with the bridle under his feet, soberly cropping the grass. Pages of Ichabod’s life list were found in the church graveyard but he was never seen again.

Juan Liziola took the photograph of the tropical screech owl. I took the photo of the Headless Hawk which I swear has not been photoshopped in any way.

Poor Washington Irving.  His work is long out of copyright thus subject to the mangling of bloggers. We thank him for his story and ask his pardon for the liberties taken with it.

Halloween and Barn Owls

October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween to all. It is that wonderful pagan holiday where grown-up people can dress up and pretend to be something they are not. It is also the time when witches, owls, and ravens rule the night.

Ravens and owls have bad reputations the rest of the year. Edward Howe Forbush thought that unfair. He was the author of Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States, a three volume work first published shortly after Mr. Forbush died in 1929. Here is what he had to say in defense of Barn Owls:

Since the dawn of history, owls have been the pitiable victims of ignorance and superstition. Hated, despised, and feared by many peoples, only their nocturnal habits have enabled them to survive in company with civilized man. In the minds of mankind they have leagued with witches and malignant evil spirits, or even have been believed to personify the Evil One. They have been regarded as precursors of sorrow and death, and some savage tribes have been so fixed in the belief that a man will die if an owl alights on the roof of his dwelling that, it is said, some Indians having seen the owl on the roof-tree have pined away and died. Among these eerie birds, the Barn Owl has been the victim of the greatest share of obloquy and persecution, owing to its sinister appearance, its weird night cries, its habit of haunting dismal swamps and dank quagmires, where an incautious step may precipitate the investigator into malodorous filth or sucking quicksands, and its tendency to frequent the neighborhood of man’s dwellings, especially unoccupied buildings and ghostly ruins. Doubtless the Barn Owl is responsible for some of the stories of haunted houses which have been current through the centuries. When divested by science of its atmosphere of malign mystery, however, this owl is seen to be not only harmless but a benefactor to mankind and a very interesting fowl that will well repay close study.

Indeed. For instance, that weird looking facial ruff appears designed to focus sound waves, magnifying them before delivery to the Barn Owl’s asymmetrical ears. Aware of minute differences in the time the sound waves arrive at each ear, the owl is capable of precisely determining the locus of the sound. A sound coming from above will seem to the owl to be slightly louder in the ear with the higher opening. A sound from the left will seem slightly louder in the ear with the left-most opening. A sound equal in both ears is straight ahead. In experiments, Barn Owls successfully hunt in absolute darkness even though in the wild there is usually at least some night illumination.

And like all owls, they hunt soundlessly. The leading edges of the first primary wing feathers are serrated which disrupts the flow of air over the wings which silences the vortex noise created by air flowing over a smooth surface.

But it is Halloween, so – if you want – you can be afraid of Barn Owls; but for tonight only.


For More on Barn Owls, see “Toe Dusting.”

Want to know how to identify Barn Owls?  Here is how if you can see the bird; here is how if it is dark and you can only hear it.

Here is a piece on the Wisdom of Owls.

For more on the delightful E.H. Forbush, see our post about Belted Kingfishers.


UPDATE – APRIL 3, 2010

Follow this link to a live web cam of a Barn Owl tending to brand new babies.

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