Of course when we think of Halloween, we think of Monsters, Witches, Pumpkins and Goblins, but did you know there are some birds that have been part of Halloween folklore long before Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film. Actually, many ancient cultures viewed certain birds as dark and demonic. How could an animal so innocuous be considered a tool of evil?
Crows are large black birds found all over the world. They feast upon the flesh of dead animals including human remains. Crows are seen as nuisance birds to farmers, constantly eating crops and quite fearless towards humans. Even the grating caw of the crow is rather unsettling to many who hear it, perfect for the Halloween theme.
These things combined make the crow appear to be a dark and evil bird, but some cultures have taken it further. In Greek mythology, the crows brought terrible news to the goddess Athena and she grew enraged and cursed them forever to be black. The Native Americans viewed the crow as a malicious trickster who always caused trouble.
Crows are also associated with death and darkness in popular culture as seen in movies like The Crow, The Birds, and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor.
Ravens are cousins to crows, both belonging to the Corvus genus of avians. Ravens are a little larger than crows and have a deeper call. Crows are also fairly social birds, where ravens tend to be more solitary, but like crows, ravens eat carrion.
In Norse mythology Huginn and Muninn are two ravens that fly around the world watching everything that goes on and then they fly back to the shoulders of Odin and whisper the deeds of the mortals into his ears. Ravens are also listed as unclean animals in the Old Testament.
In 1845 Edgar Allen Poe's poem The Raven was first published ushering in a new generation of fears and anxiety of ravens that survives to this day. Poe himself is often associated with Halloween due to his macabre gothic works.
Even though crows and ravens are given such a bad rap as death eating evil black creatures, they're actually some of the most intelligent birds capable of mimicking human voice like parrots. Also, they aren't just carrion eaters as some think, much of their diet is devoted to berries, fruit, and insects.
While crows and ravens rarely hunt prey and instead feed on already dead animals, owls are active and efficient killers. They are nocturnal and solitary hunters, they make practically no sound at all while flying, and they have spectacular hearing which they use to help find prey. These raptors also have a trademark hoot that many people find chilling.
The Aztecs depicted their God of Death as an owl and viewed the bird as a symbol of destruction. Native Americans associated owls with evil magic. The Japanese saw horned owls as demonic figures. The ancient peoples of the Middle East thought that owls were ill omens. The Romans attributed owls to death and it was considered bad luck to see an owl during the day. Romanian people thought that the hoot of an owl was the prediction of the death of someone near-by. All of these superstitions helped the owl fit in with Halloween symbolism.
Owls can be seen in the kid's movies Labyrinth and the Secret of NIMH where they are given less than a positive role, although in the Harry Potter series, owls are treated as very important. More recently, owls have been changed to be seen as a symbol of wisdom (even used as the unofficial mascot for Mensa).
While crows, ravens, and owls are slowly becoming more understood and appreciated by the public, vultures are not. The primary factor is most likely that vultures are seen as incredibly ugly birds. They're large with bald heads and they feast primarily on carrion.
Eating of the dead has never gone over well with most cultures. As such, we use the term "vulture" to describe people who prey on the weak and dying.
Vultures are also given a bad rap in popular culture where they are almost always displayed in a negative manner either by being thieves, murderers, or totally inept. Although they're not the most popular bird in Halloween culture, their symbolism is no doubt fitting for the occasion.
Vultures are actually great birds. The Egyptians honored them for their great mothering abilities and they're broad powerful wingspan.
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