For the Birds Radio Program: Halloween

Original Air Date: Oct. 30, 1996

Laura is preparing for Halloween, and thinking about owls and ravens. (3:38) Date verified.

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Halloween is one of my favorite holidays of the year. In our house, it marks the annual rite of taking out the sewing machine to make at least one of my kids a costume—over the years I’ve transformed my children into Star Wars Jawas and Yoda, triceratops, a trio of stegosauruses, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a unicorn, a clown, and, my personal favorite, three little loons.

Halloween isn’t particularly about birds, but most spooky scenes include at least an owl or two. Every culture in the world has some mythology or folklore featuring these birds of the night, usually as spectres of death. Perhaps it’s due to their nocturnal habits, or to their eyes, like the eyes of a cat. W.J. Broderip said in 1894 that “Their retired habits, the desolate places that are their favorite haunts, their hollow hootings, fearful shrieks, serpent-like hissings and coffin­ maker snappings have helped to give them a bad eminence.”

My own personal association between owls and death began last year, when I was at the cemetery at the San Xavier Mission near Tucson, where I saw dozens of Burrowing Owls perched atop crosses and running in and out of subterranean burrows in the graves themselves. Ancient Greeks loved owls, which they considered wise and benevolent. But if any of them had ever visited the San Xavier Mission, perhaps they wouldn’t have depicted their goddess of the moonlight, Athena, holding a little owl. So it’s just as well the Ancient Greeks didn’t beat Columbus to America.

Many groups of Native Americans believed large owls call dying people to the spirit world, but some also kept small species of owls as treasured pets. Nowadays it’s illegal to keep protected birds as pets, which explains why children never carry little owls along when they’re trick-or­ treating.

Another spooky bird in mythology and folklore is the raven, whose black plumage and raspy croakings conjured up deathly images for imaginative humans, such as Edgar Allan Poe. The raven he had seen may well have been saying “Have a nice day!” in raven talk, but Poe could only hear “Nevermore!” A raven raised in captivity could easily be taught to say, “Nevermore,” but no raven worth his salt would limit his vocabulary to just one word. This time of year any smart raven associating with people, even Edgar Allan Poe’s, would quickly learn to say “Trick or treat!” Unfortunately, ravens don’t go door to door, and children don’t dress up either as ravens or owls, so I’ll just have to get to work making less avian costumes—this year Joe is going as the Shadow, Katie as a split personality, and Tom as a toaster. Halloween night I’ll stay at home eating candy and thinking about spooky birds. That should be a hoot.