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Pikes/Pines | Four of the Hill’s spookiest critters that you need not fear

A species of jumping spider I found in my yard. Cute, but not, not spooky. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

October is a month of harvest, of decay, and of dreariness. Spookiness also pervades as Halloween looms near. A time when the dark afternoons start to crowd in and our human instincts tell us to be wary of the shadows.

Halloween is loaded with symbolism, some are reserved for the haunted corners of our imagination, and others are around us on a daily basis. Whether their connection to this most spooky of holidays make sense or not, the following few animals of the Hill are deeply ingrained in the popular culture that surrounds Halloween.

  • Spiders: Where humans gained a fear of spiders is much debated, partially because arachnophobia is not borne of rational thought. Then again, neither is my fear of zombies after watching a scary movie and spiders are actually real. The good news is that spiders are mostly scared or at least disinterested in humans and the rare bites that are medically significant don’t happen out of malice. Spiders have venom to help them hunt, immobilize, and even liquify their prey, not to run around biting people with. More people have died from cows than spiders. That being said, I would be lying if I said I wanted to snuggle up with a spider. But that doesn’t mean I don’t find them beautiful, because the approximately 50,000 species of spiders described by science represent tremendous diversity in size, shape, color, and life history. Some species, like jumping spiders, can be downright cute. Our cultural fear of spiders doesn’t leave room for the fact that spiders are natural pest control and are food for other animals like birds – just like bats and owls, they’re a part of the ecosystems we live in and share, even the indoor spaces where spiders help keep other unwelcome insects in check.
  • Bats: Two things connect bats with Halloween: they are nocturnal and they are misunderstood (a theme amongst many of these animals). And while many find bats cute, overall they are strange animals that have lives very different from our own. Bats fly, echolocate, and move about a seemingly different world that humans are often fearful of. That and the fact that Bram Stoker’s Dracula could turn into a bat have made them quintessential halloween. (Personally I’m a much bigger fan of the version of turning into a bat that is seen in What We Do in the Shadows.) Vampire bats are real, but not in our part of the world and humans are not high on their list of prey. Washington has 15 species of bats but we probably only have a few species that can be found in our urban seat (mostly small bats of the Genus Myotis). Ironically the cold weather of Halloween is not a good time of year to find bats moving about. They have either migrated away to warmer places or to a hibernaculum. That being said, Batweek is coming up. Ultimately, bats are worthy of our respect, not our fear. They are deeply important in our ecosystems at home and are even connected to fruit many of us relish (certain bat species are important pollinators of bananas, mangoes, and avocados). If anything, we need to encourage their presence by putting up bat houses for them to live in while they level out mosquito populations in our yards and parks.
  • Rats: The Hill is home to many, many. So many rats. Brown Rats — Norway Rats — can be frightfully large, 20 inches including the tail, large enough to incite panic in most. Brown rats burrow, which is why we find them in our crawl spaces, basements, and in the myriad forgotten holes we’ve created in developing a city. And, to top it all off they’re prolific breeders in those good habitats (temperate places with food and water aplenty). Females reach maturity at 5 weeks, gestate for 21 days, and then regularly have litters of 7 or more throughout the year. That’s a lot of rats. The smaller Black Rat (at most around 10 inches long total) similarly originated in (Tropical) Asia and hitched their way around the globe on early trade ships. In the game of expansion they’re less aggressive than Brown Rats, but have held on in major ports in the US. While Brown Rats like to burrow, Black Rats like to climb, which is why they’ve been given the name Roof Rat. They will happily take up residence in your attic. Rats populations thrive with access to food and water. Lack of water appears restricting but, what really brings all the rats to your neighborhood is food. I definitely know how irrational rats can make us: At age 5, I woke up to find my father trying to deal with a rat by smashing it with a hammer. I also know how smart, fun, and affectionate a pet rat can be: I had two as a child. That still doesn’t stop my skin from crawling when I see them climbing through garbage. Rats are kinda gross, but that’s part of their success, because they’re willing to live on our margins.
  • Owls: Funnily enough, owls are the only animals here that are likely to do physical harm to us. Sure, a bat could give you rabies and a spider could envenomate you. However, it’s much more likely that a Barred Owl defending territory might smack into you while on a walk through a local park. The only species of owl that is a year-round resident of the Hill (a species that has spread across the US in the wake of deforestation, a true horror), also happens to be a species that is tolerant of close proximity to people and are equally unafraid of making boundaries clear. The owl hoots of spooky movies are almost always that of the Great Horned Owl, a much less common species in Seattle, let alone the Hill. Their calls are fairly mellow compared to the outrageous hollering that Barred Owls produce, particularly as they establish winter territories that will carry them into the breeding season (many owl species breed in late winter.) Unlike bats, most of us are excited or fascinated by an encounter with an owl, unless of course it just drew blood with their sharp talons.

Halloween, as the occasion it is these days, ends up vilifying a lot of animals that don’t deserve our fear and popular culture has worked these negative notions into our everyday lives. While I’ve never had a serious fear of bats and owls, I’ve had to work to not be irrationally fearful of spiders and venomous snakes despite knowing full well they want nothing to do with me.

There’s nothing wrong with being a little fearful, but when that fear leads us to do things like spraying pesticides or laying traps that hurt beneficial species as much as problematic ones, it generally leads us down an unhealthy path with nature.

Connections with Halloween should be about how cool these creatures are and celebrate our connections with them, not perpetuate unfounded hysteria. Not only are spiders, bats, rats, and owls a little spooky, they’re badasses and can do things we can’t even dream of, even on All Hallows Eve.

 

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Brian Buck
Brian Buck
1 month ago

You left out raccoons. Those critters totally creep me out when I see them crawling across the top of my fence. And they are definitely dangerous. But worst of all they’ve got attitude.

Nandor
Nandor
1 month ago
Reply to  Brian Buck

A hose seems to be an effective and non-harmful way of discouraging raccoons… We had a whole family – mama and about 1/2 dozen kits that kept showing up right around dinner time during the hottest month, the year before last – just about the time when we’d have liked to be using the yard ourselves, as it was sweltering inside. They were willing to come much closer than comfortable and noises/shooing did nothing to phase them. It took several days of squirting them, but mama was eventually persuaded that dinner would not be forthcoming, but an unwelcome bath would. She took the kits elsewhere and did not come back – at least not when we were out there.

concerned
concerned
1 month ago
Reply to  Brian Buck

can’t you just co-exist with them? especially since we keep chopping down trees (their homes) to build condos for humans? they have just as much a right to be here as we do.