Tag Archives: owls

BONUS! All about animal poop



BONUS TIME!

A dung beetle rolling some poop:

Butterflies on poop:

Wombat poop is cubes!

Show transcript:

Welcome to a bonus episode made out of a bonus episode. Since this week’s topic is one that some adults may decide they don’t want their young kids listening to, because it goes into detail about hyena reproduction, I decided to unlock a Patreon bonus episode for everyone to listen to. But then I decided to actually release that episode so that listeners can download it normally in the main feed. Those of you who want time to pre-screen the hyena episode to see if it’s appropriate for your kids to listen to can listen to this episode together in the meantime, and those of you who decide the hyena episode isn’t right for your kiddos still have an episode this week as usual. The rest of you get two episodes this week! A special thanks to our Patreon subscribers who support the show and get twice-monthly bonus episodes like this one every single month. This is the only part of the episode that is new; the rest was originally recorded in late 2018. And here it is!

The topic for today’s episode was suggested by my aunt Janice. Janice doesn’t actually listen to the podcast, not even the main feed podcast, but she sends me topic suggestions every so often. Recently, she texted me out of the blue, saying, “I’ve decided that you need to do a podcast devoted to the topic of animal poop. Butterflies eat it, dung beetles roll it, owls leave pellets with tiny animal bones, guano has commercial uses, people make no-bake chocolate and peanut butter cookies and call them cow pie cookies. Goats are gumball machines! Why are so many animals’ poops little Raisinets, but others are long thick Tootsie rolls? Why do so many animals eat poop?” Only, she didn’t say poop. She said another word.

Then I texted her back, telling her how wombat poop is actually little cubes, which blew her mind.

If you listened to the spookiest owl episode recently in the main feed, you may remember about owl pellets. Those do indeed contain bones and other indigestible parts of the owl’s prey, like fur or feathers, but the pellets themselves aren’t the same thing as poops.

Poop, or more properly excrement or feces, is what’s left after food passes through an animal’s digestive system. It contains not just the remains of food that wasn’t fully digested, but secretions from the digestive system, bacteria that live in the digestive system, and of course water. The secretions include a chemical called stercobilin, which helps the body digest fat, and which is what makes your poop brown. Yes, I googled what poop is made up of. I googled it so you wouldn’t have to. I didn’t want to know this stuff. You’re welcome.

Incidentally, the bacteria in your digestive system actually help your digestion and do other good things for your body. People who have to take strong antibiotics or radiation treatment sometimes have trouble with their digestion because the antibiotics or radiation can accidentally kill a lot of the beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. Getting the bacteria back in such cases is simple, usually taking a doctor-prescribed supplement of probiotics, or in less acute cases, just eating a lot of yogurt or certain other foods, like sauerkraut or kimchi, which naturally contain probiotics.

Humans aren’t the only animals with beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. In fact, all animals have them. Some young animals, including horses, will eat their mother’s poop to gain digestive bacteria. Personally, I prefer yogurt.

Oh, and you know how dogs like to get into the cat’s litter tray and eat the cat poop? That’s because cats are obligate carnivores, which means they have to eat meat for almost all of their nutritional needs. That means cat poop is relatively high in protein, which makes it attractive to dogs. I can’t believe I’m talking about this. I hope you’re not snacking while you listen.

I’m sure a lot of us have seen butterflies gathered together on a hiking trail or in a pasture, their wings fluttering in the sunlight, and when you get too close they all fly up together and swirl around, making you smile and think about how wonderful it is that you live in a world with butterflies. Then you look at what the butterflies were gathered on, and it’s an animal poop. Why do they do that?

While butterflies do eat nectar, nectar doesn’t contain all the nutrients they need. It especially doesn’t contain much sodium—you know, salt. So butterflies get sodium and other nutrients from rotting fruit, rotting meat, and animal dung. Also, if a butterfly has ever landed on you, it was probably attracted to your sweat, which contains salt. A lot of times, male butterflies will collect nutrients from poop and other sources and offer them to the female as a gift, hoping she’ll choose him as her mate. I personally would rather have chocolate, but I’m not a butterfly.

Moths also eat poop and other unsavory things, but some moths will cut out the middle-man, so to speak, and actually drink blood from living animals. Vampire moths mostly feed on fruit, piercing the fruit with their mouthparts to suck out the juice. But they’ll also use those same mouthparts to pierce animal skin and drink blood. Most vampire moths live in Asia and parts of southern Europe, but there is a species that lives in North America, although it hasn’t been observed drinking blood. Only male vampire moths eat blood, probably mostly for its salt content, which researchers think they pass along to the female during mating.

The size and shape of an animal’s dung depends on what it eats, how it digests its food, and the size and shape of its colon. Ruminants, like cows, evolved in areas where there was a lot of water, so their feces contain a lot of water. Ungulates, like sheep, goats, and deer, evolved in dryer conditions, so as much water is removed from the feces as possible and the animal excretes dry pellets.

But what about wombat poop? It really is shaped like little cubes, and it excretes 80 to 100 of the cubes every night, since it’s nocturnal. Why is it cube-shaped?

Wombats are territorial, and mark their territory by leaving their poop around their burrows and in areas where other wombats can easily find it. This includes on top of rocks and fallen logs, so having dung that won’t roll off these markers is beneficial for the wombat. The shape is caused by the wombat’s extremely long digestive process. It takes more than two weeks to digest the plants it eats, which allows it to absorb as much water and nutrients as possible. The upper part of its large intestine contains ridges that shape the excrement as it passes through, and the poop is so compacted from its long trip through the digestive system, that it retains its shape until it’s deposited where the wombat wants to leave it.

There are a number of different kinds of dung beetles throughout the world, and not all of them roll dung, but they all eat it. The dung beetles that roll poop are mostly those in the genus Scarabaeus. While poop-eating insects sound disgusting, they’re actually quite beneficial. Some species of dung beetles will bury the poop and lay eggs in it, which fertilizes the soil and helps disperse seeds that may be in the poop, and controls parasites. At least one dung beetle, Scarabaeus satyrus, rolls its dung balls quite a distance, and navigates by the stars and the Milky Way.

Guano is the term for both bat poop and sea bird poop, and it does indeed have commercial uses. It contains high levels of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium, all of which are good for plants, so it’s used as a fertilizer. It also acts as a natural fungicide for plants. Bat guano was also once mined from caves to make gunpowder, which requires saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, which bat guano is full of.

The Thai Elephant Conservation Center, which you may remember from episode 23, non-human musicians, has developed a way to turn elephant dung into paper, which they then make into handmade notebooks. Since an elephant’s poop is mostly fiber from the plants it eats, and paper is made from plant fibers, it all makes sense. Don’t worry, the fibers are boiled to sterilize them before being used. Other companies have started using animal poop to make artisanal paper, including from pandas and sheep.

Scientists can learn a lot about an animal by studying its poop. Not only can a researcher get an idea of how healthy an animal is, they can learn what an animal is eating, what parasites it may have, and its reproductive cycle, since hormones are excreted with the poop too. Gathering poop doesn’t hurt the animal, and isn’t dangerous for the researcher, since they just pick it up off the ground. In zoos and other places where the animals are fed, researchers can mix additives in an individual animal’s food that help them identify which poop came from that animal. Additives include food dyes and glitter.

I think we’ve touched on everything my aunt Janice mentioned in her suggestion, except for cow pie cookies. I have no idea why people make them and call them that. That’s gross. Once I went to an office birthday party where the cake was made to look like it was made of poop. It was so realistic and disgusting-looking that half the office wouldn’t even try a piece. I don’t remember if I had any. Probably, knowing me. It was chocolate, after all.

Thanks for your support, and 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

VAMPIRE BIRDS

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!


Episode 024: The Water Owl and the Devil Bird



This week’s episode is about two solved mysteries that aren’t exactly solved after all, the water owl and the devil bird! Let’s figure out what those two might really be!

Cuvier’s Beaked Whale:

A swordfish, swording everywhere it goes:

Seems definitive:

A possible culprit for the devil bird, the spot-bellied eagle owl:

The brown wood owl. Nice hair, dude.

Show transcript:

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

I got my air conditioning fixed, so you’ll be happy to know I’m not sitting in front of the microphone sweating like last week.

This week I wanted to look at a couple of animal mysteries that are supposedly solved. Imagine me cracking my knuckles to get down to business, because they’re not actually solved but you and I are going to solve them right now.

If you do a search for mythical animals that turned out to be real, the water owl is on just about every single one. The water owl is supposedly a huge sea monster with the body of a fish and the head of an owl, with big round eyes. According to the medieval myth, the water owl (also called the Xiphias) was supposed to ram ships with its sword-like beak, or slice through them with its huge dorsal fin.

According to those solve mystery animals lists, it turns out that the monster was really a Cuvier’s beaked whale. But in TH White’s 1960 translation of the Book of Beasts, a 12th century bestiary, Xiphias is clearly identified as a swordfish. Elsewhere it’s also called gladius, “so-called because he has a sharp pointed beak, which he sticks into ships and sinks them.” Not coincidentally, the swordfish’s scientific name is Xiphias gladius, which basically means “sword sword.”

Directly under the Gladius entry is that of the serra, which “is called this because he has a serrated cockscomb, and swimming under the vessels he saws them up.” I don’t know what the serra is supposed to be and neither does TH White. It’s possible it was a muddled account of the sawfish.

There is no entry for sea owl, water owl, or anything similar in any bestiary I could get my hands on. It’s possible that the Xiphias if medieval bestiaries and Cuvier’s beaked whale comes from the whale’s scientific name, Ziphius cavirostris, with Ziphius spelled differently from the swordfish’s Xiphias, although I’m pretty sure the pronunciation is the same. Xiphos means sword in Greek and the whale does have an elongated beak, although nothing like a swordfish’s, and not even very long compared to other beaked whales. Another common name for it is the goose-beaked whale, which is a lot more accurate.

Its face and its beak look nothing like an owl’s, nor does it have a very big dorsal fin. Cuvier’s beaked whale is a relatively common whale found throughout the world. It grows up to 23 feet long [or 7 meters] and can be gray, brown, or even a reddish color. It’s a deep diver and habitually feeds on squid and deep-sea fish. In fact, it holds the record for the longest and deepest recorded dive for any mammal—over two hours underwater and over 9800 feet deep [or nearly 3,000 meters]. That’s almost two miles. Its flippers fold back into depressions in its sides to reduce drag as it swims. Like other beaked whales it has no teeth except for two tusks in males that stick up from the tip of its lower jaw. Males use these tusks when fighting, and many whales have long scars on their sides as a result.

The swordfish also has no teeth, but it does have a hugely elongated bill that it uses not to spear fish, but to slash at them. It’s a fast, scary-looking fish that can grow up to 15 feet long [or 4.6 meters], and it does have a pronounced upright dorsal fin. And while its bill isn’t exactly owl-like, since owls all have short bills, it does have huge round eyes.

In other words, the water owl isn’t Cuvier’s beaked whale. It’s probably the swordfish. And if anyone can point me to a primary source that mentions an animal called the water owl, I’d be much obliged.

Like Cuvier’s beaked whale, the swordfish spends a lot of time in deep water. Its deepest recorded dive was over 9400 feet [or 2,865 meters], almost that of the deepest recorded whale dive. It eats fish, squid, and crustaceans, swallowing the smaller prey whole and slashing the larger prey up first.

One interesting note about the swordfish’s eyes. Like marlin, tuna, and some species of shark, the swordfish has a special organ that keeps its eyes and brain warmer than the surrounding water. This improves its vision, but it’s also really unusual in fish, which are almost exclusively cold-blooded.

Another animals that appears on the mythical animals found to be real list is the devilbird, also called the ulama. It’s a Sri Lankan bird whose call is supposed to be a death omen, and the spot-bellied eagle owl is supposed to be the actual bird with the eerie human-like scream. But that may not be the case.

So what is the legend? What bird might be behind it? And most importantly, what does it sound like?

The legend shares similarities with folk tales like La Llorona and the Banshee, and many others throughout the various cultures of the world. in the Sri Lankan legend, a man who thought his wife was cheating on him killed their infant son. His wife went insane, ran into the jungle, and died. The gods transformed her into the ulama bird, and now her terrible wailing warns others that they are doomed.

The trouble is, not only is no one sure which bird is actually the ulama, no one’s really sure what the ulama sounds like. Some accounts say it sounds like a little boy being strangled, others just say it’s a terrifying scream. What seems to be the case is that any creepy-sounding night bird call is said to be an ulama.

I did a search online and didn’t come up with much. This audio is the closest thing to a bona fide ulama call that I could find. Most of the calls in the video are hard to hear and there’s a lot of background noise, so I just snipped out the two best calls to give you an idea:

[creepy ulama call]

There are a lot of birds people think might be the ulama. The most common suggestion is the spot-bellied eagle owl, which nests in Sri Lanka although it doesn’t live there year-round. It is an adorable floof like an owls, with ear tufts and big dark eyes. It’s not spooky-looking, but it is spooky sounding. Here’s a sample of its call:

[owl call]

Then there’s the highland nightjar, the brown wood owl, the crested honey buzzard, the crested hawk eagle, and many others. The crested hawk eagle and crested honey buzzard are diurnal hunters, so are not likely to give their calls at night. The brown wood owl, which by the way looks like the spot-bellied eagle owl with an Afro instead of ear tufts, just hoots like a regular owl. The highland nightjar, also called the jungle nightjar, calls at dusk, and like all nightjars is hard to spot. It’s gray with black streaks and black-barred tail and wings. The problem is, it sounds like this:

[cute instead of creepy nightjar call]

That’s maybe a little spooky if you hear it at a lonely place at night, but not “I or a loved one am now doomed to die” kind of spooky. Supposedly the male’s flight call is more of a scream, but I couldn’t find any corroboration about that, and in fact every bird site I checked indicated the male’s flight call is more of a hooting sound.

So what is the ulama? Here’s my suggestion. It’s not a particular bird at all, but an interpretation of any number of bird and animal calls. If you hear an inhuman scream or wail in the night, and you know about the ulama legend, then that call is naturally an ulama call. It doesn’t matter that some other person on some other night might hear a completely different call and also know it’s the ulama. All terrifying cries in the night are the ulama.

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