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Do Hallowe’en birds haunt you?

Vultures are some of the birds with a strong association with Hallowe’en. Their diet of carrion is part of the reason. Photo by Paul Nicholson

While the vast majority of our birds are beautiful creatures that are widely admired, there is a handful of species that also have other associations. In his horror-thriller, The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock used ravens, crows, gulls, and some other birds. This left a lasting negative impression among some film fans. A few birds have similar associations with Hallowe’en. These include owls, ravens, crows, and vultures.

The owls’ connection to Hallowe’en is perhaps most obvious. Most are nocturnal and they are all efficient killers. Owls have also been woven into traditional lore in many cultures over thousands of years.

In Aztec mythology, Mictlāntēcutli, the god of death, is typically portrayed with an owl feather headdress. In the Ojibwe culture, owls, and in particular the Great Horned Owl or Gookooko’oo, have been associated with death.

More recently, owls have been celebrated in the run-up to Hallowe’en on social media platforms. If you search on the hashtag #owloween on Twitter you can find a lot of owl photographs or even cute owl crafts for youngsters. Organizations such as Birds Canada, the Audubon Society, and the American Bird Conservancy have picked up on this phenomenon, and the Essex Region Conservation Authority is actually hosting an “Owl-oween Owl Prowl” at their Holiday Beach location on October 30. The Long Point Region Conservation Authority has planned similar fall events.

That vultures are associated with Hallowe’en isn’t shocking. Turkey Vultures don’t have a traditional beauty and they are scavengers that eat carrion. While they are simply exploiting a niche in nature, their diet seems goulish to many humans.

Ravens and crows are opportunistic omnivores and will include some carrion and also garbage in their diets. They are both large black bird species. Their dark plumage has nocturnal connotations even though the birds are diurnal. Ravens and crows are associated with death and darkness in popular culture, in part because of films such as The Birds.

It is likely that the American poet and author Edgar Allen Poe shaped our perceptions of ravens as well. Many of his works were stories of the macabre, the supernatural, and mystery. In his 1845 poem The Raven, Poe called the bird a thing of evil and a devil bird with demon’s eyes. He carried on, referring to the raven as “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous.” A bit harsh, it seems to me.

Some trick or treaters will opt for bird costumes such as penguins or Angry Birds and other cartoonish birds. Although in the midst of a worldwide pandemic it’s likely too close to home for most of us, some Hallowe’en reveller somewhere will be sporting a medieval “plague doctor’s” outfit on October 31. During outbreaks of the bubonic plague, a “plague doctor” would wear a bird beak mask with a long overcoat and broad-brimmed hat. There would be a sachet of lavender or another aromatic in the beak.

It's a little puzzling to me that some of our black and orange birds haven’t been adopted as symbols of Hallowe’en. The Baltimore Oriole seems like a natural fit but there has been no take-up. So owls, ravens, crows, and vultures it is.

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