Nature Nearby: Halloween ‘horrors’ still spookin’ Hyattsville
By Fred Seitz
Although we’ve entered into November, some of Halloween’s more familiar horrors continue to haunt our community.
The bat, which is the only mammal that flies, is one of the most stereotyped Halloween villains. Bats appear in many spooky movies because of their association with vampires and conjurers. None of our local bats are of the vampire variety, though, and no vampire bat is actually dangerous to humans. The three species of vampire bats — the common (Desmodus rotundus), the white-winged (Diaemus youngi) and hairy-legged (Diphylla ecaudata) — live in Central and South America and, while they are the only mammals who feed exclusively on blood, they feast largely on sleeping cows and horses — only rarely on humans.
Additionally, many of our local bats are (like humans) migrating south to warmer climates for the coming winter. Those who stay in the neighborhood tend only to emerge on exceptionally warm nights. (Blame their absence on the decline of insects to munch on in cooler weather.) So much for one classic scary villain.
The owl, another local spooky resident, can sound quite haunting and spine-tingling when it hoots. Our local barred owl (Strix varia), with its who-cooks-for-you call, is still hanging around to awaken us with its familiar chants. While owls have often been associated with wisdom and counsel to humans, their loud and sudden calls on dark nights may prompt many humans to a sudden stir or scare. I have heard tales of owls approaching people sleeping outside, but I mostly associate them with their beneficial habits: They prey on mice, rats and other small pests who are far more annoying and destructive.
We frequently associate cats, and especially black cats, with Halloween, too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a classic witch-related movie that didn’t include a cat. Our domestic cats aren’t native to the area, but are instead descendants of the North African/Southwest Asian wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica. Many scientists think that these furry quadrupeds spread throughout the world because they were purposely brought along on ships, where they were used to control rodents and help protect food supplies.
Domestic cats are one of the most common predators in this country, hunting birds, mice and rats, and even snakes. However, their free-roaming makes them good candidates for animal encounters that could result in their contracting rabies or other diseases. One of our roaming neighborhood cats is impressively large — its nickname is Godzilla — and it’s not the least bit frightened of my pseudo-fierce puppy when he’s trying to tap into his wolf roots. I don’t think my pup would fare too well in an actual encounter with that feline.
Hardly terrifying but surprisingly seasonal, the groundhog is a cutie that I’ve seen several times in the past couple weeks. We usually associate this critter with February and its eponymous holiday. And although I was first startled to see the little devils so near to Halloween, I shouldn’t have been. Groundhogs apparently love to eat pumpkins, and so we’re actually inviting them into our midst with our fall decorating and pumpkin carving. Who can blame them for munching on such a large and tasty snack? Even though many of us don’t usually associate groundhogs with Halloween, maybe we’ll start to, given their penchant for pumpkin consumption.
While Halloween is gone till next fall, some of its consorts will be on the prowl for many more months, continuing to provide us with more frights and delights.