Happy Halloween! It’s October 31st which means it’s time for costumes, candy, and horror. I adore Autumn, and while I rarely celebrate Halloween with much fanfare, it feels like the dawn of cold weather season and for that I appreciate it dearly. To show my appreciation, we have a special Halloween post for you today at Bear Sees Birds, and I will be walking you through the “scariest” birds in the world. That’s obviously a pretty vague assignment: what makes a bird scary? The biggest factor certainly is appearance. While birds are gorgeous and elegant creatures, some are off putting at first glance or even intimidating. I hate to use the word ugly, but yeah some of them are ugly. Behavior, size, and reputation are also key elements in what makes a bird scary, spooky, unsettling, etc. I’ve done some digging and I feel confident I know which bird checks all of these boxes, but first I’ll run you through some other common candidates.
I feel like we have to start with corvids. Crows and ravens specifically have a historic association with Halloween and horror. With pitch black plumage, a hoarse caw, and an easily recognized silhouette, it’s not hard to see why they’ve become cultural icons. Crows especially are ubiquitous in much of the United States, and as it gets colder I feel like I see way more crows clocking and perching in trees. Not to mention Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem depicting a frightening and mysterious raven. These birds go hand in wing with October. As I wrote about in my Raven profile back in August, corvids possess shocking intelligence and can even remember (and hold grudges against) specific humans. In other words, ravens are perhaps the only birds capable of legitimate vengeance. Spooky stuff!
Unfortunately, I don’t think corvids can be our winners. At the end of the day… they just aren’t that scary. Sure they have dark feathers and loud calls, and ravens can be imposing when you’re not expecting them, but their overall look is fairly standard, dare I say cute. Their intelligence even makes them more approachable and endearing. Ravens are just as capable of being your friend as your enemy, which humanizes them. They are closely associated with Halloween for a reason, and will always be a symbol of death or doom. But at the end of the day, they’re just cool birds with black feathers. That’s not enough.
So let’s branch out from all-black birds and get a bit goofier with it, and move to a bird with an even more explicit connection to Halloween. The Pesquet’s parrot is commonly known as the Dracula parrot. Their red belly and dark cloak-like back plumage gives them a vampiric appearance, and their grim visage is often compared to that of a vulture’s. They are even called vulturine parrots. In reality, they’re just regular old parrots with cool feathers and a bald spot on their head that they developed to help with the stickiness of the figs they eat. That’s right, they don’t even eat meat so the blood-sucking comparison runs only feather-deep. They deserve some love, especially because they’ve suffered recently from over-hunting and deserve greater protections, and when better to give them love than Halloween! But this is no more than an honorable mention to one of the most inherently spooky birds out there.
Enough messing around. We need to get into birds that are truly frightening. If you search “scary bird” on the internet, you will often find images of the same bird, one that many people find genuinely unnerving. I don’t blame them. The Shoebill, pictured at the top of this post, is a unique stork found in Africa and known mostly for it’s strange large bill. It stands around five feet tall, it poops on it’s own legs to cool off, it has an intimidating glare and a razor sharp curve atop its bill for decapitating prey, and to top it all off it can make loud machine-gun-like noises when communicating. People genuinely hate this thing. Like the Dracula parrot, it has been facing growing human threats, in this case from poachers that sell newborn hatchlings on the black market. African governments have dedicated forces to sit in canoes and protect these birds from poachers as best they can. I wonder what those conservation heroes thing of the odd creature looking back at them. The creature that they fight to protect, that bites the heads off of small crocodiles and lizards. That stands still like a statue for hours to be undetectable to prey. Sheesh.
Is this our winner? I’m skeptical. I can certainly see why it’s gotten a reputation for scaring people, but I think it’s mostly just unfamiliar. The bill is just as goofy as it is unsettling, and its demeanor rarely seems uniquely frightening. If I were to see one in a zoo, for example, I don’t think I would have an earnest reaction of eeriness- I would chuckle at it and appreciate it. It’s also hard to get behind a threatened bird as the scariest because it inherently makes it a bit of a victim, a bit of an underdog.
So let’s move to a bird with a more truly unnerving appearance, demeanor, and population. Vultures. Logically I know that vultures play an important ecological role: stopping the spread of disease by eating dead prey. That doesn’t make it any less eerie to see a bald-headed massive creature picking away at a corpse by the highway. While some vulture species are in decline (particularly in Africa), many are booming. I’ve written before about the growing and spreading population of black vultures, and the war they’ve gotten into with Midwestern farmers. They perch near cattle like a dark omen, and have been accused of killing newborn calves for easy meals. You want to talk about unsettling, there you have it. Not to mention their sheer size and appearance is often intimidating. They are widely hated for both their looks and their actions. Their very name has become synonymous with exploitation and predation. I’m not sure a more inherently antagonist type of bird exists.
The vulture would make a fine choice for the scariest bird, I think. If I stopped here, I’d be satisfied. But I think we can do better. I think we can zag a little, get a bit more specific, and find a more complete answer. Vultures, after all, contain 23 different species and are found all over the place. There is a different bird, a specific species, that I think checks the same boxes as the vulture. It’s a stork like the shoebill, it has a spooky nickname like the Dracula parrot, it feasts on dead animals like the vulture, and it’s arguably more disturbing in appearance than any of them. My choice for the scariest bird in the world is the Marabou stork, also known as the “undertaker bird”.
The undertaker bird faces no real persecution, and is plentiful across central and southern Africa. Besides the occasional lion, they have virtually no natural enemies. They got their nickname from their distinct silhouette, although they also act as a bit of an undertaker for dead animals who are feasted upon by Marabous, often right alongside vultures. Like vultures, Marabous have developed a bald head due to all of the blood it gets on it while picking at corpses. It shares the shoebill’s strange proportions and bill-rattling displays of vocalization. Despite being a stork, they retract their necks when flying like herons. Some wingspan accounts have given it some of the largest recorded wingspans of any bird, especially landbirds, but it’s heavily disputed which measures are truly verified. From its neck hangs a pink gular sack, which makes it easy to distinguish in the wild and frankly kind of awful to look at in general. Behaviorally they are reported to be ill-tempered and unpredictable.
In other words, it’s a mysterious, angry, creepy looking, corpse-eating, massive and distinct creature. This is one of the few birds I would genuinely not want to get near, in part because of genuine concern that it might get mad at me, and partly because I want to never learn what a “gular sack” feels like. It might not be what we think of on Halloween, but I do think it qualifies as the most frightening and spooky bird in the entire world. So your welcome for the killer costume suggestion!