Episode 246: MOTHMAN!

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We’re getting so close to Halloween! This week we’ll learn about Mothman! Is it a moth? Is it a ghostly entity from another world? Is it a bird? (hint: it’s probably a bird)

Sandhill cranes (not mothmen):

A Canada goose (not mothman):

A great bustard (not mothman):

A green heron (definitely not mothman but look at those big cute feets and that telescoping neck):

A barn owl’s eyes reflecting red (photo taken from Frank’s Barn Owls and Mourning Doves, which has lots of lovely pictures):

Barn owls look like strange little people while standing up straight:

Barn owls got legs:

All owls got legs:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week for monster month, let’s cover a spooky monster with a silly name, mothman! We’ll go over the facts as clearly as possible and see if we can figure out what kind of creature mothman might be.

First, though, a quick reminder that our Kickstarter is still going on if you’re listening to this before Nov. 5, 2021! There’s a link in the show notes if you want to go look at it. We actually reached our funding goal on the very first day, so thank you all so much for backing the project, sharing the project on social media, or just putting up with me spamming you about it all month.

Now, on to mothman.

As far as anyone can tell, it all started in 1966, specifically November 12, outside of Clendenin, West Virginia, in the eastern United States. Five men were digging a grave in a cemetery outside of town when one of them saw something big fly low across the trees and right over their heads. The witness thought it looked like a man with wings, but with red eyes and an estimated wingspan of 10 feet, or 3 meters. This definitely happened, even though it sounds like the opening scene of a scary movie.

That story didn’t come to light until after the next sighting hit the newspapers and caused a lot of excitement. The second sighting took place only three days later near Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in the McClintic Wildlife Area. Locals call it the TNT area, since explosives were stored there during WWII. The TNT area is about 70 miles, or over 110 km, away from Clendenin, which has led to a lot of people discounting the gravedigger’s sighting. We’ll come back to that later, though.

On Nov. 15, 1966, two young couples decided to go out driving. They were bored and it was a cold, clear Tuesday night. Remember, this was the olden days when there weren’t as many things to do as there are today. You could watch TV, but only if there was something you wanted to watch on one of the three TV stations available in the United States. If you wanted to watch a movie, you had to go to a movie theater, and so on.

Anyway, Steve Mallette and his wife Mary and their friends Roger Scarberry and his wife Linda went out driving that Tuesday night. Toward midnight, as they drove through the TNT area, their car came over a hill and they saw a huge creature in front of them.

Some 35 years later, in July 2001, Linda gave an interview to the author of the book I used as my main reference for this episode, called Mothman: The Facts Behind the Legend. She mentioned details that aren’t in any of the newspaper articles from 1966, or that give a better explanation of what happened than the articles did. There’s always a possibility that after 35 years, her memory wasn’t accurate, so I’m mostly going by the newspaper articles for my information, but she does mention something interesting in that interview.

She says this about the very first sighting of the creature:

We had just topped a hill in the TNT area, and when the headlights of our car hit it, it looked directly at us, as if it was scared. It had one of its wings caught in a guide wire near a section of road close to the power plant, and was pulling on its wings with its hands, trying to free itself. Its hands were really big. It was really scared. We stopped the car and sat still while it was trying to free itself from the wire. We didn’t sit there long, just long enough to scare it, I think. It seemed to think we were going to hurt it. We were all screaming, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ But, we couldn’t perform the actual action of leaving the scene. It was like we were hypnotized. It finally got its wing loose from the wire and ran into the power plant. I felt sorry for it.”

In the original reports from 1966, the couples said the creature was 6 or 7 feet tall, or 1.8 to 2.1 meters, with a wingspan of 10 feet, or 3 meters. Its eyes were big and glowed red in the car’s headlights and its wings were white and angel-like. Its body was gray. While it was a clumsy runner, it could fly at an estimated 100 mph, or 161 km/hour.

Let’s stop right here before we talk about what else happened that spooky night. A ten-foot wingspan is big for a bird but not unheard-of. The trumpeter swan, several species of vulture, Andean condor, Marabou stork, two species of pelican, and several species of albatross have wingspans of at least ten feet across. Some of those have wingspans of 12 feet, or 3.7 meters.

The heaviest bird that can still fly is probably the great bustard, which has a wingspan of up to 8 feet, or 2.5 meters. A big male can weigh up to 44 lbs, or 18 kg. Mothman is described as a man-sized creature with wings. Even if it was stick-thin, a person that tall would weigh far too much to get off the ground with a wingspan barely longer than its armspan.

So that’s one thing to keep in mind. Let’s find out what happened next on that cold November night.

After their initial fright, Roger Scarberry, who was driving, naturally decided to get out of the TNT area. He headed back to town. The newspaper articles report that the strange creature followed them for some distance, gliding above their car. All four of the people in the car were frightened, and after about half an hour they decided to go to the police. In her 2001 interview, Linda said,

“We wouldn’t have went to the police, but it kept following us. We saw it sitting in different places as we drove back down Route 62 toward Point Pleasant, and saw it sitting in various places once we got in town, too. It was as if it was letting us know that it could catch up to us, no matter where we went, or how fast we went there. When we first left the TNT area, it was sitting on the sign when we went around the bend and when the headlights hit it, it went straight up into the air, very fast. That’s when it followed us and hit the top of the car two or three times while we were going over one hundred miles per hour down Route 62, toward Point Pleasant. The last place we saw it was sitting on top of the flood wall. It was sitting crouched down, with its arms around its legs and its wings tucked against its back. It didn’t seem scared, then. I guess it figured out that we weren’t going to hurt it, so it followed us. We didn’t know what else to do but go to the police station.”

So, the people in the car initially saw the creature with its wing caught in a guide wire, and when it got its wing free, it ran clumsily into a nearby abandoned building. But Linda says they then saw it as they were driving away from the TNT area, presumably just a few minutes later, and that it was sitting on a sign and flew straight up in the air when the headlights lit it up.

Next, she said the car was going about 100 mph but the creature was flying above it, keeping pace, and even hit the top of the car a few times. No one said they had their head out the window to look up, so how did they know the creature was flying over their car? Presumably they assumed that’s what it was doing because it thumped the roof of their car a few times—but how do they actually know that’s what happened? They heard some thumps and made an assumption because they were scared, but at 100 mph on a back road a car is naturally going to be making a lot of noise and shaking a lot as it goes over uneven pavement. Not to mention that none of the newspaper reports mention that the creature hit the roof of their car.

I don’t think the creature was ever flying above their car. I also think the creature they saw initially was not the same creature they saw fly up from the sign. I especially don’t think the thing they saw repeatedly as they drove to town was the same one as the others. But we’ll come back to that again too in a few minutes.

The story appeared in the papers on Wednesday, November 16 and that evening, half the town went to the TNT area to look for the creature. They spotted it, too. Four people reported seeing a huge bird at 10pm on Wednesday night. The creature stared at them as they sat in their car, then flew away. Reporters also turned up another sighting of a creature with red-reflecting eyes a few hours’ drive away, also on Tuesday night, and the gravedigger’s story from several days before. By Thursday night an estimated 1,000 people arrived at the TNT area to look for the creature.

By the end of November 1966, though, things were quieting down. A November 22 article in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch is titled “Mason Bird-Monster Presumed Gone Now.” I’ll read part of the article.

“It was a week ago today that the first sighting was reported of a large red-eyed winged creature in the McClintic area. Since then there have been about 10 or more similar reports.

“The latest report was by four teenaged youths who said they saw a large bird with red eyes fly away from their car at a very high rate of speed. This was 3 a.m. Sunday.”

The article goes on to quote various authorities, including a wildlife biologist who suggested it might be a sandhill crane. It also ends with the suggestion that the sightings may lead to an eventual legend and tourism draw, which is exactly what happened, although it took almost 50 years for it to really gain traction.

The sandhill crane theory is repeated in a lot of newspapers and occasionally crops up today, so let’s learn a little bit about the sandhill crane and see if it makes any sense as a solution.

The sandhill crane is a big bird. A big male can have a wingspan of almost 8 feet, or 2.3 meters. It’s mostly gray in color and since it has long legs, it can stand 4 ½ feet tall, or 135 cm. In the dark, this might look like a man-sized gray creature with angel wings.

But actually, the sandhill crane theory is nonsense and here’s why. First, sandhill cranes don’t migrate through West Virginia. By mid-November the nearest sandhill cranes are in their wintering grounds in Alabama or Florida, where they congregate in wetlands in the thousands, or on their way to those areas from their breeding grounds in Canada. Second, sandhill cranes are not nocturnal. They’re not active at night at all. They also aren’t clumsy on the ground—quite the opposite, since they’re well known for the elegant dances mated pairs perform. Third, the sandhill crane has a long neck, a small head, and a long bill, very different from the description given of Mothman. I’ve seen sandhill cranes and they’re beautiful birds, but there’s nothing spooky about them.

Other birds were suggested as culprits too, including a Canada goose, an Andean condor, and an oversized green heron. The Andean condor has never been seen in North America and isn’t nocturnal anyway, plus it looks like a gigantic vulture, which it is. The Canada goose is a common, well-known bird that has a long neck but short legs, and isn’t nocturnal. The green heron is a small and humble bird with a wingspan barely more than two feet across, or 68 cm. It has long yellow legs with really big feet and a long, heavy bill.

It’s worth noting that none of the newspaper reports mention a bill, although they do stress that the creature had big eyes that glowed red in the light. The head isn’t prominent either, with one newspaper quoting Roger Scarberry as saying the head was “not an outstanding characteristic.”

By the end of November, newspapers had started calling the creature Mothman more and more, and that’s the name that stuck even though it didn’t actually look like a moth. It did look like another animal, though, and the newspapers even picked up on that by the end of December 1966, when a snowy owl was shot in the area.

The snowy owl is also a large bird, mostly snow-white although young birds have black and gray markings. Its eyes are yellow. Its wingspan can be as much as six feet across, or 1.8 meters. It lives throughout the Arctic and nearby regions and is migratory, sometimes traveling long distances to find food. It mostly eats small animals like lemmings although it will also kill birds, including ducks. It’s rare for one to stray as far south as West Virginia, but the bird killed in December 1966 fits the description of a snowy owl. Its wingspan was almost five feet across, or 1.5 meters.

The newspapers declared that the snowy owl was the culprit behind the mothman sightings. Linda doesn’t agree according to her interview, and I actually don’t either. I do think it’s an owl, just not a snowy owl.

I don’t even think mothman was inspired by a very big owl, like a great horned owl. I think it was a much smaller, more common bird. The barn owl is common throughout much of the world, including West Virginia. Its wingspan is 3.5 feet across at most, or just over one meter.

The reason I think that mothman was a barn owl is because the four people in the car saw several of them around midnight, although they assumed they were seeing the same creature over and over. It’s nocturnal, although it’s also sometimes active at dawn and dusk or even in daytime, and it hunts low over the ground listening for the sound of small animals like mice. Because it flies so low, the barn owl is sometimes hit by cars and would certainly be vulnerable to getting a wing caught in the guide wire of a power pole.

The barn owl has a heart-shaped face that is usually white. Its body is pale underneath and gray or brown above. It doesn’t have ear tufts. Its eyes are large and completely black, but they reflect red at night. It also has an inconspicuous beak with a ridge of feathers at its base that can look like the suggestion of a human-like nose. In other words, it can look superficially like it has a human head and face, especially when seen at night in the glare of headlights, but weird and eerie because it doesn’t quite match up with human features.

One thing people usually don’t realize is that owls actually have quite long legs. An owl standing with its legs extended and its body straight genuinely looks like a tiny, creepy person with wings instead of arms. The male barn owl even shows off his legs and his flying ability in a courtship display called the moth flight, where he hovers in front of a female with his legs dangling.

The gravedigger who supposedly saw a manlike creature with wings fly over him only came forward after the story hit the newspapers. People who doubted it was the same creature because it was seen so far away from the TNT area are assuming Mothman was a single entity when it was probably different birds being seen in different places.

If you’re still doubtful, let’s go back to Linda’s interview that we quoted earlier. She says repeatedly that she thought the creature was scared and she also mentions she felt sorry for it. We can infer several things from these statements. First, Linda is obviously a compassionate person who can feel sorry for a creature even when she’s terrified by it. Second, she must be honest because she hasn’t changed her story to make Mothman seem menacing or dangerous. She seems to be reporting exactly what she remembers seeing and feeling. Third, Mothman does not actually seem to be very big.

When you’re scared, especially if it’s dark, anything threatening or out of place seems larger than it really is, especially when you think back on it. Combine that with most people not knowing that an owl has really long legs and not knowing how huge a big bird’s wings really are when they’re unfolded, and that’s the recipe for a monster story.

Linda does specifically say the creature had huge hands that it was using to pull at its wing. My suggestion is that the owl was standing on one leg, which was extended to its full length because it didn’t want to put any more pressure on its wing than it had to. It was either using its other foot to pull at its wing or, more likely to my mind, to try and grab the guide wire to hoist itself up to a better angle. In addition to having very long legs, owls have huge talons, and in the dark that huge talon would have looked like a human-like hand. With one leg on the ground and one leg stretched up toward its wing, Linda naturally assumed it had the ordinary compliment of two legs and two arms in addition to two wings.

Once the creature freed its wing, it didn’t fly away. Its wing was probably hurt and it ran toward the nearest shelter, an abandoned building. The witnesses said it was a clumsy runner, and that’s true of owls too. Their talons are made for grabbing, not walking on.

Then, a few minutes later, the witnesses saw the creature—or something that looked like it—on a sign as they left the TNT area. I don’t know the size of the sign but even if it was a big sign, would a human-sized creature really perch on it? It flew straight up, which also seems unlikely for a creature as heavy as a human six feet tall. Heavy birds can’t fly straight up, but an owl can because it’s actually not very heavy at all. It looks big because owls have such thick, fluffy feathers.

Later, Linda reports seeing the creature—or, again, something that looked like it—sitting on a wall. She says “It was sitting crouched down, with its arms around its legs and its wings tucked against its back.” This actually sounds like the way an owl usually sits except of course that an owl doesn’t have arms. Linda thought it had arms so she would have assumed they were wrapped around its legs, which is why she couldn’t see them.

Obviously the people who saw the creature were terrified. That’s a natural reaction to seeing something at night that you can’t identify and think might be dangerous and even supernatural. I don’t think any of the initial witnesses were lying or stupid or drunk, or anything like that. They had a frightening encounter they couldn’t understand, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Last year I woke up in the middle of the night and heard a little girl’s voice say, “Oh, hello there!” in the darkness of my bedroom in my locked house with no other people in the house with me. It was absolutely terrifying–but then I woke up better and realized that I’d been dreaming and my cat Dracula was snoring, and as I woke up my brain interpreted the little cat snores as a person talking. That doesn’t mean I was stupid and that doesn’t change the fact that I was really scared even after I realized what happened.

The trouble is that many people, after they’ve had a frightening experience like this, refuse to consider that they might have been wrong about what they saw. They say things like, “I know what I saw!” without taking into account that maybe their brain was doing its best to fill in details so they could better evaluate the potential danger. You brain is hard-wired to give you as much information about danger as possible so you can decide whether to run away or prepare to fight or just laugh and tell your little brother he didn’t actually scare you. If you can’t see details properly because it’s dark and the car’s headlights are making weird shadows, your brain fills in the details based on what you can see (and what you expect to see), and it’s not always correct. If in doubt, your brain assumes the thing you’re seeing is dangerous. That’s how our far-distant ancestors survived when movement in tall grass might actually have been a cave bear and not just the wind.

In other words, after a scary experience is over and you’re thinking back about what happened, ask yourself if it’s more likely that you saw a flying man with wings and red eyes, or if you saw an owl and your brain added other details to convince you to run just in case you were in danger.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 091: The Spookiest Owls

It’s Halloween week! Join us this week for an episode about spooky, spooky owls…including the chickcharnie and the owlman.

I’ve unlocked a few Patreon episodes as a Halloween treat. Click through and you can listen on your browser:

The Hazelworm


See-through animals

And a reminder that my fantasy novel Skytown is available now in ebook and paperback. Buy many copies!

The Eurasian eagle owl will murder you without remorse and look fabulous doing it:

The Eastern screech owl is tiny but has a loud, creepy call:

The barn owl is sometimes called the ghost owl FOR OBVIOUS REASONS:

A great horned owl:

Further reading:

The Telltale Lilac Bush and Other West Virginia Ghost Tales by Ruth Ann Musick

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s finally Halloween week, my favorite week of the year! Let’s learn about another animal frequently associated with Halloween spookiness, the owl!

First, though, a reminder that if you want a Strange Animals sticker, always feel free to contact me and ask for one. You can email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com or contact me through social media. If you’ve got an extra dollar or two a month just lying around, you can support the podcast on Patreon and get access to twice-monthly bonus episodes. And if you want to read a fun book that actually has very little to do with animals, my novel Skytown is now out in both paperback and ebook. I’ll put a link in the show notes for both my book’s Goodreads page and to the Patreon page. Not everyone knows what Patreon is, so briefly, it’s just a site where you can set up recurring monthly donations and in return get patron rewards.

I have unlocked two more patreon bonus episodes for anyone to listen to. I’ll put a link to them in the show notes too. You can click on the links and listen via your browser, without needing a Patreon login.

Now, with housekeeping out of the way, on to the owl episode!

Like bats, owls are mostly nocturnal animals and that makes many people afraid of them. They also look kind of weird, can sound really creepy, and fly so silently that they’re like ghosts. But we’re going to start this week’s episode off with an owl-like mystery animal in a place you might not expect.

The Bahamas is a country made up of over 700 islands, many of them tiny, located roughly between the Florida peninsula and Cuba. These days it’s famous for sunny beaches and warm waters. Tourism is a big part of its economy and lots of people take cruises to the Bahamas. But between about 500 years ago and 200 years ago, the Bahamas was a terrible place. The native people of the area, called the Lucayan, were enslaved by the Spanish and forced to work on plantations under horrific conditions. Most of them died. The British took over the islands around the mid-17th century, bringing enslaved people from Africa to work the plantations. Also during this time, pirates treated the area as a haven, leading eventually to one really good Pirates of the Caribbean movie and a lot of terrible sequels, although this is perhaps a little off topic. In 1807 the British came to their senses and abolished the slave trade, although they didn’t actually abolish slavery until 1834. British ships sometimes attacked slave ships and rescued the captives on board. Many of the captive people were brought to the Bahamas, where they made new homes. Freed and escaped slaves made their way to the Bahamas too, where they could live in relative peace.

The largest of the islands that makes up the Bahamas is called Andros Island, although it’s technically a collection of three main islands and some smaller ones that are all quite close together, protected by a barrier reef. It’s the only island in the Bahamas with a freshwater river, and naturally there are many animals found on Andros Island that live nowhere else. There used to be even more native animals, before the forests of Andros were chopped down.

The island has many spooky stories, of course. Most places do, and the darker the history of a place, the more spooky stories it’s likely to have. For instance, it’s said that a fisherman named James was caught in a hurricane one night and never arrived home. His fiancée, a woman named Anna, spent every night walking along the beach and waving a lantern, hoping against hope that he was alive and would be able to find his way home when he saw her light. But he never came home, and eventually Anna was found on the beach one morning, dead of a broken heart. Then, a year after James’s disappearance, another storm blew up. The fishermen of the island sailed for home as fast as they could, but the night was dark, the waves were enormous, and the rain pelted down so hard they couldn’t tell which way they were sailing. Then one sailor noticed a small light waving in the distance. All the fishermen turned their boats in that direction, and they all managed to reach land safely. But they couldn’t figure out what the light was that they had seen…until the morning, when the storm had blown over. On the beach they found the wreckage of James’s boat, lost the year before and finally blown ashore…and they also found Anna’s lantern lying on the sand although she had been buried months before. Oh my gosh, that is spooky.

But the Andros Island story we’re interested in today is that of a creature called the chickcharney. It’s sort of a bird, sort of a goblin. It was supposed to be about three feet tall, or almost a meter, with big round eyes—possibly only one eye in the middle of its face. It was covered with hairy feathers and could turn its head almost all the way around. Some versions of the story say it had a long prehensile tail that it used to climb trees. It was supposed to live in the pine forests and make its nest in trees that were so close together that the branches touched near the top.

The chickcharney was mischievous and would sometimes play tricks on people, but if people treated it with respect and left it alone, they would have good luck. If they bothered it, not only would they have bad luck, sometimes the chickcharney would grab the person and twist their head around backwards. The best way to keep the chickcharney from bothering you was to carry brightly colored cloth or flowers when you went into the woods.

You may think that the story of the chickcharney is a lot less believable than the one about James and Anna. But as it happens, Andros Island used to be home to a flightless owl that sounds a lot like the chickcharney.

The Andros Island barn owl stood over three feet tall, or about a meter, with long legs, and lived in the pine forests. It was a burrowing owl that nested in holes beneath the trees, but we don’t know much about it since it’s extinct. It probably went extinct in the 16th century when the pine forests on Andros Island were felled, but people still report seeing the chickcharney. So while it’s a slim chance, maybe a small population of the owl is still hanging on.

Another owl-like cryptid is called the owlman. Supposedly, in April of 1976 two sisters saw a huge winged creature hovering over a church tower during a family holiday in Cornwall, England. In July of that same year, two other girls who were camping near the church heard and saw a huge owl. They said it was the size of a grown man, had red eyes and pointed ears, and black claws. It hissed at them and flew straight up into the air. Other people reported seeing the owlman too.

The problem with this story is that it was initially reported and investigated by a man named Doc Shiels, who has been associated with hoaxes in the past. But if the owlman sightings are real, could the witnesses be seeing an actual owl?

One of the biggest owls alive today is the great grey owl, which lives throughout northern Eurasia and in parts of Canada and the northwestern United States. Its body is nearly three feet long, or 84 cm, and its wingspan can be up to five feet across, or 1.5 meters. It’s brown and grey with yellow eyes, and it mostly eats small rodents. It has incredible hearing and can hear animals moving around under up to two feet of snow, which it then dives into to catch its prey.

But the great grey owl doesn’t live in England, and it doesn’t really fit the sightings of owlman. The Eurasian eagle-owl does, and while it also doesn’t typically live in England, up to 40 pairs are estimated to live in the British Isles and it’s common throughout much of Eurasia.

The Eurasian eagle-owl has a shorter body than the great grey owl, but its wingspan is broader. Females are larger than males, so a big female might have a wingspan up to 6 feet 2 inches, or 1.9 meters. Females also tend to have darker plumage than males. The Eurasian eagle-owl has ear tufts and its eyes are orange or red-orange. It eats small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, even large insects.

Like many owls, the Eurasian eagle owl will hiss when it’s disturbed. It will also fly during the day when it’s been disturbed, although it will sometimes hunt before it’s fully dark.

But could someone mistake an owl for a human-sized creature? No matter how big their wings are, owls just aren’t that big.

Then again, most people aren’t very familiar with owls. I’m an avid birder and I don’t see owls very often, so the average person who isn’t into birdwatching may never have seen an owl in person before. Owls look even bigger than you think they would because of how enormously fluffy their feathers are, and if they’re disturbed they may ruffle their feathers out to look even bigger. Their legs are much longer than you’d think too. Add in someone being startled and potentially really scared by a sudden owl, and possible poor light conditions, and you have a recipe for owlman reports.

Even if owlman is probably just a giant owl, owls in general are just kind of creepy. Creepy-cute, but definitely on the spooky end of the animal spectrum. And all those odds and ends of weird facts you know about owls? They’re probably true.

For instance, owls really can turn their heads around backwards and even farther, as much as 270 degrees. Owls have 14 neck vertebrae, twice as many as humans and most other mammals have, and they have other adaptations that allow them to turn their heads that far without injury. The reason owls need to be able to turn their heads so far is because they can’t move their eyes. Owl eyes are fixed in their sockets so they can only look straight ahead from wherever their head is pointing. This is actually the case for most birds.

Owls are nocturnal and can see extremely well even in low light. Owls that mostly hunt in darkness have black eyes, while owls that usually hunt at dawn or dusk have yellow or orange eyes. Most owls have good hearing too. The reason many owls have that circle of feathers around their eyes, called a facial disc, is to help focus the owl’s hearing. The owl can adjust the angle of the feathers in its facial disc to focus sounds. Not only that, some owls have asymmetrical ear cavities, which makes it easier for them to pinpoint the source of sounds. The ear tufts some owls have on their heads are not actually ears or anywhere near the ear cavities. They’re just decorations.

Owl feathers are shaped so that the owl can fly silently, not only softening the edges of the feathers so sound is reduced, but lowering the frequencies of the sounds produced by the feathers so that it’s below the prey’s hearing spectrum, while the owl can hear itself and other owls flying just fine. Researchers are studying owl feathers to help design quieter airplane wings, wind turbines, and other machines.

Most bird feathers are somewhat waterproof because when a bird preens, it spreads oil over the feathers. Owls don’t do this, which means owls can’t hunt in wet weather.

An owl swallows its prey whole. Teeth, claws, some bones, hair, and feathers can’t be digested, so instead of passing through the digestive system, these indigestible pieces are compacted into pellets in the gizzard and regurgitated by the owl before it eats its next meal. Researchers study owl pellets to determine what an owl is eating. Some other birds of prey make pellets too, including hawks and eagles.

There are a lot of superstitions about owls, just as there are about bats. Some cultures believe that an owl calling around a home means someone who lives there is going to die, but some cultures consider owls lucky. Owls are also known for their wisdom, and I do not know where this comes from because they’re no smarter or dumber than any other bird. Actually, I do know where this comes from. The owl was associated with the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena.

If you wonder why anyone would think an owl’s call is a bad omen, you may not have heard an owl call. Sure, some owls make jolly little hoot-hoot sounds. But some sound like this:

[screech owl call]

That’s an eastern screech owl, and I recorded it myself in my own driveway a few weeks ago. It sounds like a ghost. A lot of owls sound like ghosts. I mean, I’ve never actually heard a ghost. I’m just making an assumption that they sound scary. Maybe people who hear scary owl calls didn’t know what was making the sound, and assumed they were made by ghosts.

Some people even call barn owls ghost owls. Some farmers in Florida and other areas have started putting up nest boxes to attract barn owls, because owls hunt rats that damage sugar cane and other crops. Putting up owl nest boxes is a lot less expensive and better for the environment than rat poison. The common barn owl lives throughout much of the world. It’s brown or gray on its back, white underneath, and with a white face and dark eyes. It’s a medium-sized owl with a wingspan of about three feet, or 95 cm. This is what it sounds like:

[barn owl call]

Let’s finish with a creepy little story I found in a book called The Telltale Lilac Bush by Ruth Ann Musick. It’s a collection of ghost tales from West Virginia, and Musick was a folklorist who collected the tales with the help of her students. I reread the book this week hoping to find mention of an owl to close out this episode. Instead, I found this. Listen and decide what you think really landed on this poor man’s back during his ride through the night. It’s a story called “A Ride with the Devil,” collected in 1955 and related to the student by his mother, as told to her by her mother.

“One dark evening, about one hundred years ago, my great-grandfather had a strange experience. He was riding his horse back from a small country store somewhere in Randolph County in the vicinity of Mill Creek. He heard something that sounded like a log chain falling from a tree, and then he felt the presence of something on the horse behind him.

“He was frightened half out of his wits, but he turned his head around to see what the thing was. First he saw long claws that were digging into the flesh on his shoulder. He thought that a bear had jumped behind him on his horse, but, turning his head farther around, he found himself staring straight into two fire-red eyes. The creature had hardly any nose, but there were two protruding objects on his head that looked like horns. He was face to face with Satan himself! He tried many times to shake him off his back. He pushed. He tried racing his horse to get rid of him. But all this did no good. Satan clung to his back with those razorlike claws through it all.

“As he came within sight of his home, a strange thing happened. To his utter surprise, the thing disappeared.

“Upon arriving home, he slowly walked into the house. His wife noticed his torn shirt and bleeding shoulder and was terrified.

“He told her the whole story, but asked her never to say anything about it to anyone. Then he said something else. He said, ‘I have just seen the devil, and it won’t be long now before he gets me.’

“Exactly three weeks from that chance meeting with the devil, Grandfather fell while repairing his tobacco shed and was killed almost instantly. His last word before he died was ‘Water!'”

On a possibly related note, this is what a great horned owl sounds like:

[great horned owl hoot]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!