In just about every iconic horror story or film we can think of, there will be at the very least one scene involving a shadowy, scary-looking bird in silhouette cawing at the moon, perched ominously on a tombstone or flapping silently through the misty, eerie, atmosphere.
No Halloween montage is complete without an image of crows pecking at eyes, vultures tearing meat from bones, or owls glaring into your soul, seeking to extract your very essence before you die. But how did some birds get to be associated with the dark and murderous night that is Halloween?
One of the most frequently depicted birds in Halloween folklore is that large, distinctively voiced, inky-black bird, the raven, and this appearance in many a ghost story in all likelihood has something to do with a certain eponymous poem by the man also credited with creating detective fiction.
In 1845, Edgar Allan Poe published The Raven, wherein the protagonist is driven slowly mad by a raven that visits his chamber one dark night. Over 18 stanzas, we learn that the “Ghastly grim and ancient Raven” offers just a single reply to the man’s desperate entreaties as to when he will see his love, Lenore, again. The answer is solemnly delivered by the great bird: “Nevermore”.
“We learn that the “Ghastly grim and ancient Raven” offers just a single reply to the man’s desperate entreaties”
The sight of this blacker than night beast, calmly perched on the door, darkly repeating the same portentous word over and over, drives the man to his wit’s end.
Featuring heavily as harbingers of doom and consumers of fallen soldiers in olden tales of war and battles in Celtic history, it is thought the image of ravens and therefore all crows became specifically associated with Halloween with the publication of that poem back in the mid-nineteenth century.
After that point, whilst already regarded with suspicion, their kinship with death morphed into a family of birds that now enshrines madness, devilry, and the supernatural. These vastly intelligent creatures secured their place in the fantastical world of demons simply by being able to talk.
These large, round-faced birds are famously said to be the most silent fliers in the world. Unique wing and feather structures enable them to vastly reduce turbulence and all noise that comes with locomotion.
Their wings are large relative to their body mass, which means they can fly much more slowly than many birds, and glide noiselessly through the air. Exceptional hearing puts the cherry on top, and this superb method of hunting, together with their habit of being more active at night, their ability to revolve their heads almost completely around, and their piercing and glowing orbs for eyes have earned owls a fine place among the scariest birds out there.
Not only are they nocturnal hunters, but they also dispatch their prey efficiently, stealthily, precisely; all the while as quiet as death. When some of them do make noise, that too is enough to put a chill into your blood on a cold, moonless night, as mournful hoots and blood-curdling screeches echo through the trees.
“They dispatch their prey efficiently, stealthily, precisely; all the while as quiet as death.”
The Aztecs saw owls as the embodiment of their God of Death, symbolising destruction. Native Americans claimed owls possess the means to weave black magic; the horned owls of Asia gave the Japanese cause to see them as demons.
Romans who heard an owl hoot or see one during the day considered themselves to be next in line for the Grim Reaper, and quite a few European cultures involved nailing a dead owl to their door to keep away evil spirits. It’s self-explanatory why owls are considered birds of Halloween.
It should come as no surprise that these birds feature heavily in our psyche as horror personified, given their diet of rotting flesh. Not to everyone’s taste, this propensity to dine out on what gets left behind is actually doing the world an enormous favour, and we would be – and possible already are – in very dire straits without these birds picking up after us.
In the early 2000s, scientists began to understand the scale of the problem we would all face if anything ever happened to these birds and if their essential clear-up services disappeared.
Vultures happily and readily feed on decomposing animals, often in large groups, and traditions of sky burials and of leaving dead cattle in the open to be cleared away by scavengers rather than disposed of “in-house” have been undertaken for centuries in many countries of the world.
In 1993, an anti-inflammatory painkiller called diclofenac hit the market, and its use soared, cheaply administered to cattle in Africa, Asia, and now in Europe. Little was known about the effect this would have on other wildlife until it almost became too late (and some say it has) to reverse the damage.
Vultures were suddenly rapidly dying in huge numbers and unfortunately, it took a few years to figure out why; 95% of species on the Indian sub-continent have vanished since the 1990s.
It turned out that, even in tiny amounts, diclofenac causes kidney failure in these birds, who became sick after ingesting meat contaminated with it. Emaciated, they die after a few weeks. It wasn’t long before the bodies of dead cattle (and birds) started to pile up and leach their decomposition juices into the waterways, causing further untold problems.
Wolves and feral dogs gathered to feast in greater numbers, no longer deterred by hungry birds striking from above, and populations of these pack animals exploded, leading to more and more encroaching on urban areas, spreading diseases like rabies, and attacking humans.
Without the one bird family whose lives revolved entirely around eating carrion, we were forced to look directly at something we’d been trying to avert our eyes to all along.
“There is potential for them to finally earn a more respectful character appraisal”
With a recent greater understanding of the role vultures play in our world, and the threat they face from such poisoned meat, there is potential for them to finally earn a more respectful character appraisal, and maybe one day they won’t be feared and maligned as they currently are.
But until then, keep your eyes on the skies and be alert for the messengers of doom flying about your head, ready to carry you off to the underworld where your soul will lie in torment: you then too will be Nevermore.