The Skunk Corner
The Wildlife Behind Halloween
Spiders, bats, and owls have long been common symbols of Halloween, but that doesn't mean you should only look for them in festive front yards. Read on for the facts behind common spider, bat, and owl superstitions and misconceptions, and how to best observe the real-life counterparts of these Halloween creatures.
Long ago, people associated spiders with witchcraft and believed in a variety of superstitions surrounding them. For example, it was thought that a black spider hanging over one's bed was a sign of bad luck, or that a spider making its web was "spinning" one's fate. Spiders have since become a classic part of Halloween displays because of these traditional beliefs, as well as the fact that people notice them more this time of year. The orb-weaver spider has a life cycle lasting about 12 months, from one autumn from the next, and the reason we see larger individuals at this time of year is because they have had a whole year to grow. In addition, many species of spider spend this season looking for mates, so we see them out and about more often.
Spiders aren't really as scary as they are portrayed in Halloween decor. In fact, they are important residents of backyards and even homes because they help control pests such as mosquitoes and flies. You can easily find and observe orb-weaver spiders in your yard by shining a flashlight around trees and bushes and looking for their glistening webs.
Many spiders are incapable of biting humans, because their mouthparts are too small. Some others do bite, but won't cause any more harm than itching at the bite area. The only truly dangerous spider in Santa Barbara is the black widow, which often can be found in sheds, woodpiles, and unused outdoor faucets. If you are ever bitten by one, see a doctor right away, because although the bite is unlikely to be fatal in healthy adults, it can cause serious symptoms.
Like spiders, bats most likely became Halloween symbols because of both their seasonal activity patterns and because of people's association of them with evil and fear. In the Northeast at this time of year, bats preparing to migrate south or hibernate become more active in their feeding behavior, so they are a common sight during the Halloween season. In addition, the unusual nature of bats as the only flying mammals and the fact that they come out at night has made them the subject of many superstitions and fears. For example, it used to be believed that bats were witches' companions. Nowadays, fear of bats is often based on the misconceptions that they suck blood or get caught in people's hair, or the fact that they are more likely than some other mammals to carry rabies.
In reality, the only bat that does feed on blood (the vampire bat) doesn't bother humans (it feeds on blood from livestock, without harming them), and all of the bats that we have in the United States are insect-eating types. Bats don't fly into people's hair either- while they may fly near you while chasing a bug, their ability to echolocate will keep them from bumping into you. It is true that bats can carry rabies, but most bats do not have the disease, and encounters between people and rabid bats are rare. (That said, if you are bitten by a bat or find one inside your home that could potentially have bitten you at night, contact your doctor and see if you need the rabies vaccines.) In general, bats are quite beneficial to have around, as they control the populations of mosquitoes and other "pest" insects. Look for them above your yard or an open space as it gets dark, or find their nesting places by looking for their guano (droppings) below a bridge.
If you are walking alone at night and suddenly hear an unusual sound, you might be spooked. That's one reason that owls have been associated with witchcraft and consequently with Halloween. Different species make different vocalizations, from the great-horned owl's stereotypical hoot to the barn owl's screechy hiss to the screech owl's high-pitched repeating call. These sounds, which used to be seen as an evil omen, are how they communicate with each other, such as to find a mate or declare territory. Owls, like other creatures associated with Halloween, are also more likely to be seen during the fall months- both because some species nest in the winter and because shorter days lead them to come out earlier.
While some superstitions may cast a negative light on owls by associating them with evil, in reality owls are harmless to humans and even provide the important service of rodent control. It is true that there have been cases of owls harming certain pets (such as cats) that may resemble their prey, but this can easily be prevented by keeping pets inside at night. Owls can be observed in many local open spaces and parks, such as the Arroyo Burro Open Space or La Mesa Park. Arrive as it gets dark, and watch (and listen) for owls beginning to hunt- the best places to do so are where a grove of trees meets a field or open area.