Halloween is one of our favourite holidays. It’s a great excuse to turn off the lights, settle down in front of a scary film with a pumpkin spice latte, or something stronger like a lychee eyeball martini, and hide away from the kids when they come trick or treating.
Does that make us sound like miserable old gits? Perhaps. Or perhaps we’re just a bit envious that Halloween wasn’t such a big deal when we were young and missed out on all the fun of dressing up, being allowed out after dark, and stuffing our faces with sweets.
One thing’s for sure though, certain species of birds are inextricably linked with Halloween and all things spooky. So to celebrate in Bird Spot tradition, we’re going to take a look at some of them here.
Crows are large birds found all over the world. They tend to be black – although some like the hooded crow are pied – but if you look at their feathers in certain lights you can see that they are actually blue, green, or purple.
They have long been associated with death and darkness, due to their behaviour of eating carrion including human flesh. Having arrived on the planet, millions of years before Homo sapiens, their scavenging behaviour was already perfected well before humans started dying. Before the advent of modern burials, primitive man must have known that it was a strong possibility that his destiny was to be eaten by a crow.
During the Black Death, when the most fatal pandemic ever recorded in human history swept through Europe and North Africa, killing up to 200 million people, victims were taken from their houses and left to die on the streets. Crows swooped on the bodies pecking out the soft tissue first starting with the eyeballs before moving on to the brain.
The costume worn by plague doctors, a long black cloak with a mask shaped like a bird’s beak that held aromatic herbs, didn’t help the crow’s reputation either.
As we know, medieval folk enjoyed nothing better than spending an afternoon watching some torture as a form of entertainment. Many of the torture devices involved some sort of contraption, such as The Coffin, The Wheel, or The Gibbet in which people were placed and either tortured to death or left to die exposed to the elements. As they died, crows would peck at the victim cementing in people’s mind the bird’s association with death.
Even the collective noun for crows gives a hint to how fearful our ancestors were of crows. Although there is no definitive explanation why we call a flock of crows a murder, it’s likely because of its habit of scavenging around graveyards, battlefields and other places associated with death.
The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe is a narrative poem that tells the story of a talking raven’s visit to a bereaved man lamenting the loss of his lover. As the man descends into madness, the raven taunts him even more by constantly repeating the word ‘Nevermore’, which angers the man who calls the raven ‘a thing of evil’.
Poe said he chose the raven because he wanted a ‘non-reasoning’ creature capable of speech and to symbolise mournful and never-ending remembrance. He was also inspired by Grip, the raven in Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, which could also speak and perform tricks. In a review of Barnaby Rudge, Poe wrote that Dicken’s raven should have served a more symbolic, prophetic purpose.
Poe may have also been inspired by various accounts of ravens as messengers in folklore. In Norse mythology, Odin the king of gods, owned two ravens which he would send out into the world to gather information for him.
In the Old Testament, Noah sent a raven from the ark to find out whether the flood waters had subsided and to look for dry land. For some time, the raven would fly back and forth to the ark, but eventually never returned and some believe it stayed away because it was feeding on the corpses of those who had drowned in the flood.
In Metamorphoses, a 15-book mythological epic by Ovid, the Roman poet and contemporary of Virgil and Horace, a white raven is punished by Apollo and turned black for delivering a message about a lover’s unfaithfulness.
In The Crow, the 1994 gothic horror film, about a murdered musician who is raised from the dead to avenge the deaths of him and his fiancée, the protagonist quotes Poe, “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
The film has a cult following, and is said to have been cursed with numerous accidents occurring on set, including the fatal showing of Brandon Lee, the son of martial arts icon Bruce Lee.
And although, the film is called The Crow, none of the birds used in the film were actually crows. They were in fact all ravens, probably because they are much bigger birds, with a longer, more impressive beak.
Although not a bird we associate with Halloween, the Dracula parrot deserves a special mention in this roundup of ghoulish creatures.
Also known as Pesquet’s parrot, or the vulturine parrot, it is endemic to the cloud forests of New Guinea. It is a large bird that measures almost 50 cm in length and weighs around a kilogram.
It has dark plumage with grey scales on its chest, and a brilliant scarlet belly, uppertail coverts, and wing-panels, which resemble Count Dracula’s red-lined cape made famous by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film. Males have a small red spot behind the eye and the head is almost completely bald with a long, hooked black bill giving it a vulture-like appearance.
Although, it is now agreed that vultures evolved their bald heads to keep cool, scientists think the Dracula parrot lost its feathers so it didn’t get sticky when eating its favourite food. No, not blood, but fruit. The Dracula parrot is a highly specialised frugivore, feeding almost exclusively on a few species of figs.
However, there is one bird that does have blood-sucking tendencies, the aptly named vampire ground finch, found on the Galapagos Islands, and one of Darwin’s finches.
When alternative food sources, such as seeds and insects, are in short supply the vampire ground finch feeds by drinking the blood of other birds, mainly the Nazca and blue-footed boobies. The finch pecks at their skin until blood is drawn but curiously the boobies offer little resistance. It has been suggested that this behaviour evolved from the vampire finches picking parasites from the feathers of the boobies, which is why they don’t seem to mind.
Happy Halloween from the Bird Spot team 🎃🦇👻