Who needs Halloween decorations when we have some of nature’s spookiest creatures in our own backyards? While some birds might not deserve their “scary” reputations, these birds can help get you in the Halloween spirit.
Dark as night, crows are intelligent and cunning birds. Crows are seemingly indiscriminate eaters, scavenging on insects, carrion, eggs and young of other birds, berries, snakes, and garbage. The species has a well-deserved reputation for being clever. In an Aesop fable, a crow drops pebbles into a jug to raise the height of the water until he is able to drink out of it. Alfred Hitchcock gave crows a scarier role in his horror film, “The Birds,” in which birds mysteriously begin behaving strangely and attacking residents of a town.
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While Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” cemented its place in Halloween for this other member of the corvid family, the raven has had a much more ancient role in mythology. For the First Nations along the Northwest coast, the Raven is a transformer who created land, released people from a cockle shell and brought them fire. But his means to these ends were often devious, granting him a reputation as a trickster as well. Ravens look similar to crows, and are often best distinguished by their deeper, throatier call.
3. Turkey Vulture
The unfeathered head of the turkey vulture gives this bird a startling appearance, but scientists think it helps protect the bird from disease as it scavenges on carcasses. That’s right—these birds feed mostly on dead animals. You can find them soaring over open or partly wooded country, observing the actions of other scavengers. Unlike most birds, the turkey vulture’s sense of smell is well-developed, which helps it find carrion by odor.
4. Loggerhead Shrike
Permanently in costume, the Loggerhead Shrike sports a black stripe across its eyes, reminiscent of a bandit. In reality, the black feathers around the eyes of this—and other birds—help reduce the glare from the sun. Loggerhead shrikes catch insects, rodents, and even small birds with their hooked bill. The loggerhead is famous for impaling larger prey on thorns or barbed wire—saving them to be eaten later.
5. Great Horned Owl
This aggressive and powerful hunter is best known for its love of the night, and haunting hoots. While it typically eats rats and mice, these owls will even attack and eat snakes, hawks, and geese. The “horns” are also called ear tufts, which despite the name, have nothing to do with hearing. Scientists aren’t exactly sure what role they serve, but theorize they may be related to communication, camouflage, or serve to make the bird more intimidating.
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 18th century poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the mariner kills an albatross that had followed his ship. The death of the bird brought with it a curse that resulted in the death of the rest of the crew. The real bird is more impressive than frightening – at 6.5 to 11 feet, they have the largest wingspan of any bird. They can also glide for hours without resting or even flapping their wings. Albatrosses can spend years at sea before returning to land to nest.
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Truthfully, these birds may not be all that scary after all. While some look intimidating, they’re harmless to people, and many play vital roles in the structure of our ecosystems.