Three Strange Fowls


Three peculiar birds sinister enough to be Halloween characters are the petrel, the screech owl, and the shrike. The owl and the petrel are night creatures, while the shrike moves about during the day. Each of the three birds has some singular characteristics.

The petrel is a sooty-colored ocean bird that ranges in size from the small swallow-like storm petrel to the three-foot-long giant petrel. Called “Mother Carey’s chickens” by sailors, petrels hop and patter and glide over the surface of the ocean, giving the appearance that they are walking on top of the water. The petrel’s flight resembles that of the bat, and it can sit on the water and then spring—almost catlike—into the air. Superstitious fishermen consider the bird a sign of an impending storm, wreck, or deep-water disaster.

The petrel digs a burrow in the soil a few inches wide and two or three feet long. A single egg is laid, and the male sits on it during the day while his mate forages for food. Then, at nightfall, she returns and he flies off to skim for edible bits of marine life, sleeping on the water when it suits his mood.

The petrel can see as well by night as by day—a rare gift among birds. Its colony is a noisy and spooky place at night as the males come and go in the darkness, conversing in squeaks and screams and eerie chuckles.

Another mysterious night flyer is the screech owl. While other owls make familiar sounds of to-whit, to-who, or hooo-hooo, the screech owl has a low-pitched ghostly wail, half whistle and half cry, that floats eerily on the night air. The sound is so trembly and drawn out that uneasy folks refer to it as the “shivering owl.”

The screech owl is about ten inches long and is a meat-eater. It feeds on mice, night-flying moths, lizards, spiders, grasshoppers, and crawfish. Ancient shade trees are favorite haunts for the screech owl, and the cavity of a tree limb is a preferred hiding place for its nest. In olden times, terrified victims told stories of being beaten on the head at night by fearsome flying demons. Such incidents probably were due to a pair of hostile screech owls attacking to protect their young.

The shrike is a daytime creature that looks harmless enough, but nature has provided it with a suitable disguise by adding a black harlequin half-mask across its eyes. Innocent looking or not, this gray and white songbird is actually a ruthless character and is commonly called the butcher-bird. It uses its powerful hooked beak to catch and kill smaller birds as well as mice, frogs, and grasshoppers.

The shrike posts itself high atop a lookout point such as a bare tree branch or a telephone wire. Silently it waits, watching the bushes and grasses with a baleful eye. When it spots an unwary victim, it plunges straight down to attack with surprising speed. Sometimes a shrike may hover directly over its prey and then plummet down to strike and kill. Either way, this ruthless mangler then hangs its victim on a barbwire fence, the spine of a thorny bush, or the twig of a tree for a meal later on.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Scott Greer