Have you ever encountered a large owl? No, I’m not talking about the kind that Walt Disney beat to death with a stick.* I’m talking huge.
The summer of 1976 has gone down in British history as one of the hottest on record. But it’s not just the searing temperatures that mark it as a memorable one; that year, there were many strange sightings of UFOs and other unexplained incidents which bewildered and terrified many people. But just before the heatwave got underway, an especially peculiar sight transfixed residents in the finger of land jutting out on the southwestern side of England.
In April of that year, two sisters named Vicky and June Melling taking a walk through the forest during a family outing spied a huge creature with large wings poised above the steeple of Mawnan Church in Cornwall. The girls, 9 and 12 years old respectively, were so badly terrified by their encounter that their father, Don Melling, immediately ended the family Easter vacation. That same day, June drew a picture of the “bird man”, as she called it. Don contacted paranormal researcher Tony “Doc” Shiels soon after, though he refused to allow the frightened girls to be interviewed.
This singular incident may have been forgotten as the wild imaginings of two young children unfamiliar with nature were it not for another sighting just three months later in the very same location by 14-year-old Sally Chapman who was out camping with her friend Barbara Perry. The teenagers heard a strange hissing noise and saw “a big owl with pointed ears, as big as a man” covered in grey feathers. “The eyes were red and glowing…you could see its feet were like pincers” with large black claws like a “crab’s claws”. At first, they thought it was someone playing a prank on them. That is, until the thing flew straight up into the air and disappeared into the trees. They contacted Shiels directly and supplied him with their own drawing.†
Over the years, Shiels has come under fire as a perpetrator of hoaxes and creator or urban legends, yet not all encounters with such a strange creature have been recorded by him. Long before he coined the name “Owlman” for the creature encountered by those girls in the woods, four teenagers in Kent witnesses a UFO land at Sandling Park and a “bat beast” emerge from it on November 16, 1963. The witnesses described it as a five-foot-tall “headless bat”; a handful of other sightings of it happened later that month at Sandling Park as well. But this is nothing compared to the bizarre incident back in 1922 when a strange vampire-like “creature” with a six-foot wingspan was pursued by police at West Drayton Cemetery in London.
Strangely enough, a giant owl also reared its head in the United States back in August 1982 near Rocky Fork Lake in Ohio. A woman saw what appeared to be a 10-foot tall tree trunk… until it crept over into a clearing and spread its wings. About a year later—just a half mile or so from the cove where the creature had been sighted—the witness once again came face to face with what she believed to be the same creature, albeit a bit skinnier this time. The one thing that stuck out about her encounter was the creature’s thin yellow legs ending in what seemed to be three toes.‡ Thin yellow legs, it could easily be argued, like those of a crane.
The Wyandot tribe referred to these much-feared giant owls as Flying Heads. They were said to be guilty of everything from destroying crops to carrying off babies. Early pioneers in the Ozarks called it the “Booger Owl” instead. In more recent times, cryptozoologist Mark Hall dubbed it Bighoot: a humorous homage to Bigfoot.§
Was the Owlman of Mawman a part of some heat-induced hysteria? Or were local townspeople caught off guard by an owl or crane? And are Owlman, Mothman, and Bighoot all just the same creature? Can misidentified cranes or other large birds truly explain all these stories?
*Kent, George. ‘Snow White’s Daddy.’ The Family Circle, 24 June 1938, p. 10-11.
†Downes, Jonathan. The Owlman and Others. Corby: Domra Publications, 1998.
‡Eberhart, George. Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2002. p. 201.
§Newton, Michael. Hidden Animals: A Field Guide to Batsquatch, Chupacabra, and Other Elusive Creatures. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2009. p. 102-3.
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