photo by NCReedplayer

Spooky Birds

Back by popular demand, it’s our annual Spooky Birds post! We’ve updated our list and added a few new avian faces to frighten your night. Take a look below…if you dare!

In your backyards, on your schoolyard, swooping through your neighborhoods and far beyond… here is BirdSleuth’s take on the Top 13* Spooky Birds **

*Because we don’t believe in unlucky numbers, this year we’ve listed the top 13 birds people may perceive as terrifying, unnerving or just plain scary!

**We hardly have ornithophobia (fear of birds), and we hope you don’t either… we just find learning about birds frighteningly fun!

1. American Crow

Laura Meyers

The hoarse cry echoes across the sky, sending chills down your spine: Caw! Caw! Caw! Believe it or not, a large group of crows is called a “murder,” but there’s nothing truly scary about this wonderful species. Crows are very intelligent, family-oriented birds that are rarely seen alone. This all-black bird (even the insides of his mouth are black!) could easily sneak up on you in the dark night… but alas, they are diurnal! While they do often eat meat, their diet is broad and consists of whatever they can forage: insects, eggs, berries, seeds, even garbage! Learn more about this fascinating species (and hear their raucous calls) at our All About Birds site.

 

2. Magnificent Riflebird

11MagnificentRiflebirdsoundslideA bird named after a rifle?  What could be more frightening?  Never fear, this bird doesn’t shoot bullets, but it does make a very interesting sound! Watch and listen to this magnificent species at our Birds-of-Paradise site!

These birds may look creepy with their vibrant throats, velvet-black feathers and curved bills, but give them a break: they just want to dance! Males perform an elaborate courtship dance to attract females that involves head tosses and prancing to show off their brightly colored breast. The fascinating noises they make are a signal to help females find them. The riflebird is found only in the rainforests of New Guinea and northeastern Australia, so don’t expect to hear one at your bird feeder!

3. Common Raven

“Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’” The bringer of devils and death, this bird features in the classic spooky poem The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe.  Ravens are incredibly smart: they can solve puzzles and have demonstrated sophisticated use of tools for foraging. They can even mimic sounds, including human speech! Because of their intellect and their fondness for carrion, mythology surrounding them hails them as otherworldly harbingers of war and death! One word for a group of ravens is an “unkindness,” but some people are sure to feel affinity with this talented trickster that once stole fire from the sun. With black feathers, black eyes and a beak capable of tearing open animal flesh, the raven is indeed a terrifying presence. Add in its throaty cr-r-ruck cry, and the bird takes on an almost supernatural eeriness perfect for All Hallow’s Eve. The Common Raven ranges over most of western and northern North America… will you see them where you live?   Find out at All About Birds!

4. Barn Owl

bird, out, flight

Silent, stealthy hunters that fly about at night, owls have been associated with magic, evil, and death for thousands of years. The Aztecs portrayed their god of death as an owl, but lore surrounding these birds has become less horrific in recent years. Author J.K. Rowling depicts owls as messengers for wizards and witches in the Harry Potter books, and the owl has become a symbol of wisdom in many Western cultures.

The Barn Owl is a trifecta of spookiness:  unearthly hoots, hisses, and shrieks; a tendency to roost in the attics of abandoned (haunted?) houses; and a round, white face with dark eyes—how ghostly!  This species could surely give trick-or-treaters a fright… but they won’t even hear her coming!  The bird’s soft feathers allow for silent flight so she can sneak up on ANY prey, especially her favorite snack: mice and voles!  Watch out! Barn-owls are widely distributed, occurring on all continents except Antarctica. Find out more about this ghostly bird at All About Birds. Get an even spookier look at Barn Owls by dissecting their owl pellets with our kit Dissecting the Food Web: An Owl Pellet Investigation.

5. Northern Shrike

Photo by Ron Lacey

Small, fast and ruthless…but you’d hardly know it by looking at this Blue Jay-sized predator. Shrikes perch high in exposed trees, still and silent, their beady black eyes watching for tasty morsels. A bold mask of black feathers gives this hunter a piercing and terrifying look. Then suddenly…they attack! Diving from above, they pick off insects, other birds and even small mammals. To make this carnivorous bird even more frightening, they often impale their prey on barbed wire or thorns to kill it!

In fact, their scientific name, Lanius excubitor means “butcher watchman” in Latin. And they are indeed butchers. The bill of the shrike is stout and curved like a fishhook, making it perfect for gouging open their prey. Shrikes are hunters of the tundra and taigas of Canada and the Northern US but they will often be found as far south as New Mexico on their winter migration. Learn more about this precise hunter at All About Birds.

6. Turkey Vulture
turkeyvultureLauraMeyers

Photo by Laura Meyers

Scavengers that feed primarily on the dead, vultures have long been scorned and sometimes feared across many cultures (although other cultures revere them). When a wild animal dies, large numbers of vultures have an unnerving knack for showing up quickly. In ancient Greece, the birds were considered bad luck, and according to Persian lore, a pair of vultures guards the gates of Hell. Just think of all the roadkill that might pile up without decomposers such as the vulture.

Large, dark, and hulking, the Turkey Vulture has a huge 6-foot wingspan and distinctive red bald head (the bare head keeps the birds from getting soiled when eating carrion). Turkey Vultures can be seen soaring alone or in groups, high in the air, holding their wings in a V-shape and rocking back and forth. By the way, Turkey Vultures have an excellent sense of smell, which they use to detect rotting flesh… so please make sure you smell sweet to avoid being descended upon!

7. European Starling

“Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’”  This one line from Shakespeare’s Henry IV brought the starling to our shores.

You see the shapeless blob of these birds descend upon your lawn, hundreds of birds poking holes in your grass to dig up bugs and snag spare seeds. Farmers live in fear of such a flock descending on their crop, completely devastating it. Iridescent feathers give them an unearthly shimmer as they hop around and then finally take off in uncannily harmonization. Such a flock of starlings is called a “murmuration”. When enough of these birds come together, they can form a massive, undulating cloud of bodies that can block out the sun in a sight reminiscent of Hitchcock’s famous thriller!

To make this bird even more terrifying, they force other birds out of their habitats! Starlings are not native to America, they were brought over from Europe in the early 1890s as part of an ill-advised program to bring every bird mentioned by Shakespeare to America (the starling is only mentioned once by the Bard, in the line quoted above). Today they have become one of the most hated imported species for their boisterous and aggressive nature that aggravates humans and unsettles native songbirds.

But starlings aren’t all bad. Check out this interesting Scientific American article (External link) on the birds or learn more about starlings at All About Birds.

8. Common Loon
commonloonBillThompson

Photo by Bill Thompson

On a summer’s night in the north woods, a werewolf’s eerie call rings out just before dawn across an otherwise quiet lake… But wait! That’s not a werewolf, it’s a loon! Loons have a ghostly call  that has long been associated with the supernatural. Some Native American tribes associated the call of the loon with impending death.

The Common Loon is so beautiful to behold… who would imagine that such a creature, just  before the sunrise, might make you think your lake is haunted!  Intrigued?  Listen to the call at our All About Birds site, or watch this Cornell Lab Voices video.

 

9. Harpy Eagle
Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 12.14.36 AM

Photo by B Mlry

With a thick, curved beak, deep dark eyes, and a formidable 7-foot wingspan, you wouldn’t want to run into one of these guys when they’re hungry. The Harpy Eagle is the largest and most powerful bird of prey in the world, regularly feeding on monkeys and sloths! Its sharp talons are larger than a grizzly bear’s and it hunts high above the forest canopy, prepared to dive upon unsuspecting prey. Truly a devil of the sky! Harpy Eagles are found in the rainforests of Central and South America… and fortunately for us, they like to keep far away from people. You are safe… for now!  Interesting in learning more? Check out this documentary (External link) or learn about this species (and hear its squealy call) at our Neotropical Birds site.

 

10. Great Potoo

You’ve never seen him… but he’s seen you! During the day, you WON’T dare see him, highly camouflaged, at the tops of broken off branches. And on a dark night in the rainforest, a potoo’s growl “paaaaaawwww!” might give you nightmares! (Listen here!) Potoos remain motionless during the day, mimicking the tree branches so as to disappear from predators and prey alike. When they take to the air to devour insects on the moonless night, it’s like the tree has…suddenly…come…to…life!

But unless you live in the rainforests of tropical America, where Great Potoos are native, you don’t have to worry about your local trees suddenly springing to life in a flurry of feathers.

 

 11. Kookaburra
kookaburra_Hugh Powell

Photo by Hugh Powell

Who’s laughing? That low chuckle that slowly builds into a shrieking laugh is no human, it’s a Kookaburra! These kingfishers are the largest of their kind…but they don’t even eat fish! A Kookaburra is actually well-known for eating snakes along with insects, frogs and rodents.

The happy-sounding cry of the Kookaburra has long fascinated humans for its similarity to human voices. There are many popular nursery songs and rhymes having to do with this bird, such as the classic “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree”: ‘Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree; Merry merry king of the bush is he. Laugh, Kookaburra, laugh, Kookaburra; Gay your life must be!’

The Kookaburra is native to Australia and New Guinea so the chances of you seeing one this Halloween are very slim. But the next time you hear someone laughing just as the sun is slipping away…

Check out this blog post on Kookaburras. Be sure to listen to the recording of their call!

12. Marabou Stork

marabou stork 2

Much like the Goliath Heron, this bird has graceful, long legs and an impressive wingspan of up to 12 feet!

But unlike its fellow African species, this stork feeds on every manner of putrid animal matter available, including carrion, garbage and even feces! Its naked head allows it to dive deeper into carcasses and its long, powerful bill lets it snap up large mouthfuls of whatever is available for dinner. Marabou storks are often seen with vultures, pecking at carcasses or scrounging in garbage heaps.

Because of its appearance and frequency at carcasses, this bird has been nicknamed the “Undertaker bird”. From behind, its long black wings, white collar ruffle and naked head give it the appearance of the Grim Reaper. Spooky!

13. Vampire Finch
By Anna (Flickr)

Photo by Anna (Flickr)

Beware! The Galapagos Islands are crawling with vampires! They take the shape of tiny black finches with razor sharp beaks. The vampire finch uses its beak to peck at the tail-feathers of other birds until it draws blood from the small cut. Like a vampire, the finch then drinks the blood from the bird. Often, hoards of the birds will join in and share the feast!

This bird also feasts on eggs by rolling them off rocks to crack them and then drinking the yolk.

 

 

Bats are pretty spooky, too. Why aren’t they included on this list?

Bats are NOT birds! Even though they can fly, bats give birth to live young (instead of laying eggs like birds do), feed their young milk, and they have fur, not feathers. They are mammals.

What else can I do?

  • Take your students out to observe birds in your neighborhood!  You might even want to do a citizen-science count and tell us about the spooky (and not so spooky) birds in your area!
  • Nothing scary about these lessons…Give your curriculum a birdy boost with Feathered Friends, a free download that provides one hands-on lesson each month supporting teaching topics like habitat, migration, and nesting.
  • This sound download package includes nine spooky owl sound clips from the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library, including the Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Barred Owl!
  • Want to know more about why bats aren’t birds and what makes a bird a bird? Check out the Bird Academy site for some great interactive games and tutorials!

 

 

9 Comments

  1.  by  Brian Smith

    I elect vampire finch of the Galapagos Islands. It’s picks at the wounds of injured shorebirds. Ghastly!

    •  by  BirdSleuth K-12

      I think we’re going to have to create a new Top 10 List for 2014!

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  4.  by  Robert Stalnaker

    Re, “This majestically spooky bird is danger of extinction as their habitat is increasingly threatened by human development.”

    I truly do not understand why you use this term “development”. Destruction of natural lands and the poisonings of our waters is not “development”. To even imply that extirpation and extinction of species is somehow “OK” because the reason was humans were “developing” something is absurd. It is the 21st Century and you would think that humans could have found a way by now to do all they need to do but still preserve and even re-acquire the ecosystems for living animals and plants, especially those that are threatened. I contribute to Cornell Lab, both with regular subscriptions and special causes (like the Golden-winged Warbler project), but I am very disturbed (to the point of anger) that the term “development” is part of your dictionary when indiscriminate destruction of natural lands is driving species to extinction.

    Cornell is a center of higher learning; you are not beholden to the real estate industry nor are you in the pocket of corrupt politicians, anxious to grab dollars from contracting companies while giving them a waiver to destroy supposedly protected wetlands or rare dry uplands. I urge you and everyone at Cornell to stop calling this “development” and instead remind readers that their effort and financial support is greatly needed to stop the “destruction” of lands needed by so many species.

  5.  by  Jan

    What small bird flies day and night emitting a whowhowhowhohahaha in a ghostlike warble? I think it has a white maybe yellow belly.

    •  by  Kelly

      Hi Jan. Nothing springs immediately to mind. Where are you seeing the bird (where in the country, and what habitat) and at what time of year? Location, habitat, and time of year can be important ID clues!

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