Delmarva’s Creatures Of The Night

by Jim Rapp

Learn about Delmarva's creatures of the night: owls, bats and wild cats from naturalist Jim Rapp.

Nocturnal animals have been long been associated with Halloween. There's something about creatures that literally "go bump" in the night that frightens and amazes us. If you decorate your home for trick-or-treaters, there's a good chance you have an owl, bat or black cat somewhere in view.

Nocturnal animals are primarily active under the dark cover of night rather than during sunny daylight hours. There are many reasons why this behavior can benefit wild animals. In hot places, such as deserts and rainforests, it's cooler at night. If you eat the same food as another similar animal, your ancestors likely switched to the night shift to avoid competition. It's also easier to hide in the dark from animals that might be hunting you.

Owls are the bird ambassadors for Halloween, and witches of mythology were often linked to these nighttime hunters. One Greek superstition believed that witches could turn themselves into owls, while others describe owls as messengers for sorcerers and witches. Think Harry Potter's pet Snowy Owl, Hedwig.

More modern legends say that an owl's nearby hooting or an owl perched on a rooftop is a warning that death is near. But not all owl superstitions are bad. Some cultures believe that owls are good luck for farmers at harvest time.

Delmarva's owls are secretive, but you can often hear and see them at dusk and dawn. Of the eighteen species of owls typically found in North America, eight can be found on the Peninsula. Eastern Screech-Owls and Great-Horned Owls are commonly heard and seen close to people in urban forests and rural back yards. Barred Owls prefer Delmarva's wet, swampy woods, and Barn Owls often nest in manmade structures near open fields.

The tiny Northern Saw-Whet Owl migrates through Delmarva in late fall and can be found in the maritime forests of our barrier islands. Short-Eared Owls and Long-Eared Owls also make appearances in winter, and Snowy Owls occasionally migrate through the Peninsula and hang out on our coastal beaches.

Owls are specialized predators with adaptations that help them hunt at night. They have excellent binocular vision and depth perception, but their large eyeballs are fixed in their skulls. To compensate, owls have a super flexible neck that allows them to turn their head 270 degrees, which is almost a 360 degree full circle.

Owls have extremely sensitive hearing. The feathered facial discs around their eyes and ears act like a funnel that amplifies sound. Most owl ear openings are asymmetrical, which allows them to pinpoint the exact location of that tasty mouse rustling in the grass.

The leading edge of the owl's flight feathers is rigid and comb-like, while the other feathers are soft and fluffy. This combination muffles any noise caused by flapping wings, which helps owls surprise unsuspecting prey. If you are a small rodent or bird out and about on Halloween, you should be terrified of the owls lurking behind you.

Bats are another spooky nocturnal creature we associate with October 31. Bats are probably linked to Halloween thanks to Hollywood and the popularity of Dracula and vampire movies.

In nature, bats are the only flying mammals. They number about 1,200 species worldwide, which is almost 25% of the total number of mammal species on the planet.

Bats are critical to global agriculture because they protect and pollinate crops. A colony of 1,000 Mexican Free-tailed bats can eat the equivalent of two full paper grocery bags of insects every night, according to researchers at Sacramento State University. In the southwest, nectar-eating bats pollinate agave, which is used to make tequila.

More frightening than the bats themselves is a bat-killing disease known as white-nosed syndrome. Millions of North American bats have died from this fungal infection, which appears as a white dusting on the muzzle and wings. The disease causes a loss of body fat and scarring on the wing membranes. White-nosed syndrome can also cause the weakened bats to wake up during seasonal hibernation, which often leads to death. While wildlife biologists are studying the disease to help wild bat populations, no remedy has yet been found.

Delmarva's bats are divided into two groups: the "Cave bats" and "Tree bats." While we don't have too many caves on the Peninsula, our Cave bats spend their winters hibernating in manmade structures such as abandoned buildings and barns. They often form colonies to roost and raise their young in the summer. "Tree bats" tend to be more solitary, and they roost alone or in small groups under pieces of bark or in clumps of leaves. Some tree bats are known to migrate long distances during the spring and fall.

Some of our cave bat species include the Big Brown, Little Brown, and Tri-colored Bat. Delmarva's Tree Bats include the Eastern Red, Silver-haired, Hoary and Evening Bat.

Black cats are another classic Halloween symbol for being harbingers of bad luck. Pilgrims of the Plymouth colony associated black cats with witches and sorcery, and they actively persecuted and burned black cats.

Apart from the friendly and not-so-scary black cats living in our homes, cats in wild Delmarva are very hard to find. Historically, Eastern Cougars and Bobcats roamed our Peninsula. The Eastern Cougar has been declared extinct in the U.S., but cougar populations in the west are believed to number around 30,000 animals. Sightings of cougars and other large cats on Delmarva have been reported, including a black panther sighting on Chincoteague in 2003. If these cats are living wild on the peninsula, they are most likely escaped pets.

Bobcats are elusive, medium-sized wild cats with a distinct "bobbed" tail and a tawny coat with stripes and spots. They have tufts of black fur on their ears and spotted fur on their stomachs.

Bobcats are predators, and can jump 10 feet in the air to catch a bird in flight or a squirrel on a low branch. Their main prey includes rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels, mice, and birds. Bobcats are also known to eat old, sick or young deer.

Bobcat sightings on Delmarva have been reported in recent years, but none have been verified by wildlife biologists. They are found on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay and in southeastern Pennsylvania, so it is quite possible that a few have made the trip south to the Peninsula.

Keep your ears and eyes open for owls and bats when exploring Delmarva. If you see a wild bobcat, take a picture, and send it to your State Wildlife Agency. You may help document an animal that most believe has disappeared from Delmarva. It would be nice to see these ghosts of the forest hunting again on the Peninsula.

Find out more:
Delware DNREC - Bats
Maryland DNR - Bobcats
Maryland DNR - Owls
Maryland DNR - Mountain Lions & Bobcats