Most of our symbols of Halloween have their roots in nature. And since our Metroparks are the best places to enjoy nature, it follows that you should think about Metroparks at Halloween time.
No tricks, they’re all treats.
Think about spider webs, owls, the full moon, old gnarled trees, serpents, bats – pretty much anything you associate as a symbol of Halloween has some kind of relationship to nature.
Check out meadow and prairie trails for spider webs, oak savanna for gnarled old trees. Sign up for a special evening or night hike program for the best chance to hear one of our native owls.
Take a Metropark trail and see for yourself.
Was that sudden chill on the trail just a pocket of colder air or the presence of someone who had passed that way before?
Wherever you walk, you’re not far from an owl. It’s entirely possible one is watching you as you walk, maybe from only a few feet away. A screech owl can make itself look remarkably like a stubbed branch on a limb.
In these days of waning daylight and lengthening nights, of still-warm days that give way to frosty nights, it is those things – like owls – cloaked in darkness that divert our attention.
It’s a natural diversion, born of ancestors who slept under the moon and stars.
They welcomed the light and feared the night, and who can blame them. Modern technology can light the night, but it wasn’t so long ago that the darkness was a cloak that took what could be seen and known in daylight and turned it into places to be avoided and feared.
It’s an understandable if inaccurate leap to conclude that, while humans aren’t capable of fully functioning in the darkness, those creatures that could must possess supernatural powers. How else could an owl hunt at night, fearlessly flying through the thick forest and pouncing on prey? How else could bats dart and dive, plucking insects on the wing. How else could spiders build and rebuild webs in the darkness?
A kingdom of darkness
The owl's kingdom is darkness, a place many humans dread. Consider, too, the characteristics of some owl species, for example, the haunting, spine-tingling tremolo call of the screech owl or the ghost-like appearance of the barn owl. With its white plumage, the barn owl does appear to be a ghost-like apparition. In truth they are all voracious hunters of rodents.
It’s not witchcraft but biology that enables an owl to fly hell bent for election through the night forest. When full grown, great horned owls are Ohio's largest resident owl standing some 20 inches tall with a wingspan of over four and one-half feet.
They are beautiful birds of prey, wonderfully adapted to their role as nocturnal hunters. Each is equipped with a pair of huge eyes to collect the meager light of midnight, possessed of acutely tuned hearing refined enough to hunt on that sense alone, aerodynamically outfitted for silent flight, and armed with powerful talons to take up unsuspecting prey.
The owl’s witch-like attributes have mellowed through the years into the modern image as a symbol of wisdom, alertness, and unquenchable curiosity. That image isn’t accurate either.
Those attributes along with the owl’s short neck, broad, rounded face, large, forward-facing eyes and its down-turned nose-like beak make it a can't-miss creature ready-made for Disney cartoons. And then there’s its unique ability to turn its head almost all the way around.
Many of our local bats have departed for more southern climes by the time Halloween rolls around. Their link to Halloween, in addition to their clearly nocturnal habits and their unusual habit of roosting during the day by hanging
upside down in darkness, is their distant cousin, the vampire bat. Vampire bats, which are native to South America, lap blood from sleeping mammals.
But our local bats don’t crave blood – most species feed exclusively on insects, using their ability to echolocate like radar, honing in on night-flying insects and plucking them from mid-air. A single bat can comb the atmosphere and, by morning, ingest some 3,000 bugs. Studies on a single colony of bats in Texas estimate that every night, the colony plucked 250,000 pounds of insects from the air.
Hardly evil, their efforts are those of an extremely efficient insect predator, and their hunting and flying abilities are amazing.
But, undeniably, their appearance works to keep them forever a symbol of Halloween. Their flight is made possible by flapping wings composed of skin stretched taut over the bone structure that would be a hand for humans. When folded, they’ll use their wings to help them move across surfaces in what looks to be, but isn’t, an awkward stumping that some find grotesque.
And what better symbol of damp darkness than spider webs, be they the beautiful circular webs of the orb weavers, or the seemingly jumbled masses of silk constructed by the cob weavers.
Imagine walking along a trail, dipping through a damp hollow and into a spider’s web while a screech owl wails in the background and a bat zips overhead.
Nature’s cool even when it scares us.
Art Weber, director of natural photography for Metroparks.