Chapel Hill ghost light or barn owl

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Apr 162010
 

“Barn owl” hardly seems mysterious or paranormal, but what about the strange lights of Chapel Hill, Tennessee? The legend involves a headless ghost that uses a lantern to search for its head. According to one version of the story, long ago a signal man was walking on the railroad tracks one stormy night. He slipped in the rain and hit his head on the rail before a train came and . . . well, you know. Another version has the poor man falling off a boxcar; that seems more likely. But the general drift of the story resembles other ghost light stories in the United States, for example, the Gurdon Light of Arkansas*. The explanation for the Chapel Hill Light and the Gurdon Light is the same: bioluminescent barn owls.

Many ghost lights in the eastern and southern states resemble the “Silcock Min Min lights” of Australia. Fred Silcock wrote a book about the slow-flying mystery lights: The Min Min Light, The Visitor Who Never Arrives. Of course it does not explain all strange lights of the world; but when a slow-flying light, just above the ground, weaves back and forth like a hunting barn owl, then that is probably what it is. The surprising characteristic of the glow is not yet classified in biology textbooks; nevertheless, eyewitnesses verify that some barn owls sometimes glow. And that explains the white underside feathers: to allow light to easily pass through those feathers.

Not all ghost lights in the United States behave light hunting barn owls, however. Marfa, Texas, is famous for the dancing lights that have defied scientific explanation for a long time, but that’s another story.

See the Marfa Lights, “Living Nightmare” (not any barn owls)

* See also Arkansas Pterosaur (although this may not be related to the Gurdon Light)

Mar 112010
 

I’ve never been to Marfa, Texas, where dancing ghost lights have intrigued residents and visitors on countless nights for countless years; what causes the strange lights has defied logical explanation. But I have spoken with an eyewitnesses, Ed Hendricks, who for years has carefully investigated the lights. I appreciate his intense struggle to unravel a mystery that seems to defy unraveling; I respect his skill, talent, and educational qualifications; I acknowledge his careful observations, recorded in detail and shared. Nevertheless, I suggest something rarely, if ever, mentioned to explain Marfa Lights, perhaps as shocking as ball lightning or as eerie as dancing demons: a species of large flying creatures, intrinsically bioluminescent.

The puzzle cries for a solution; Mr. Hendricks and I agree. I respectfully disagree with his general assumption (something like an atmostpheric phenomenon, non-living). I credit him for his work, but credit the Marfa Lights to the flights of cryptids, notwithstanding they differ from flights of birds and bats. Why do they seem, at times, to dance? Why do two lights fly apart, then turn and fly back together? The dance sometimes appears complex but the purpose is simple. It’s just their technique: a way to catch bats.

Whatever the bioluminescent creatures are that make those lights, they may be the only ones who have worked harder in this area than Mr. Hendricks, with one possible exception. And just as this human researcher spends much time (pondering and writing) away from those fields just south of Marfa, the cryptid spends much time (searching for bats) away from those fields. Hendricks and others have tried to find what causes those lights, but bats flying just south of Marfa (and elsewhere) may try even harder to not be found by those lights.

But how could a flying creature glow, and so brightly? Even though the lights are sometimes described with the word “fireflies,” those who have observed the dancing of Marfa Lights (true Marfa Lights, not car headlights; cars never dance) sense a power, a size, a speed that dwarfs any insect. To catch just a tail feather of an answer to that question, let’s leave Texas and fly, first to Australia and then to Tennessee.

Come with me to Victoria, Australia, along Salisbury Road in Mt. Macedon. Notice, as we enter an open window, that Mr. Fred Silcock is sleeping in the easy chair by the fireplace. Now search for a thin brown book on the bookshelf. That’s the one; the spine says “The Min Min Light  F.F. Silcock”. Notice the drawing of a glowing barn owl on the cover.

Turn to page 12, under the heading “Min Min Intelligence,” and read the words of two observers of strange flying lights: “It definitely knows you’re there. I found it would not let us any closer than it wanted us . . . They are very playful, like a bunch of puppies chasing one another all over the place, going out and hopping up in another place. They can move pretty fast but most times move slowly, hovering and floating.”

Turn to page 45, under the heading “The Common Denominator,” and read the first paragraph. A Silcock Min Min (my own label, and not to be confused with other light-phenomena labeled “Min Min” in Australia) flies with ease, sometimes against the wind. It appears to fly with intelligence, sometimes interacting with one or more other Min Mins, and this interaction can appear playful. This paragraph makes it clear that these mysterious lights in Australia behave like birds. But what birds fly around at night, glowing?

Reading further we learn that there is nothing unscientific about the possibility of a self-luminous bird, although it’s a study not yet undertaken by universities, examining live or dead birds to test the Silcock hypothesis. But the book quotes many eyewitnesses who report finding the source for the Min Min glow: the “great owl” (called “barn owl” in the United States). It is Tyto Alba, found in many countries worldwide.

The book mentions an observation by William Wharton, of Queensland. One night he saw a bright light on the diving board of his swimming pool. As insects flew around the light, it began to fade until Wharton could see a glowing bird that was picking at insects that had landed on the board. The book mentions many eyewitness reports that make it obvious that some barn owls, sometimes, emit a glow, and that glow can help them catch insects. Of course that would explain why the underside feathers of barn owls are white: to allow light to pass through. Of course that would explain the bobbing, weaving motion of Min Mins; that is how barn owls fly at night while hunting. Mr. Silcock makes many points for a bioluminescent Tyto Alba.

Now let’s fly back to the United States, to Chapel Hill, Tennessee. Notice the railroad tracks, barely visible in the moonlight. Look down those tracks. A faint glow appears bobbing just to the left of the tracks; now it bobs over to the right. It looks like someone is approaching with a lantern, searching back and forth, but searching for what? Could this light be the lantern held by the man who was hit by a train long ago? According to the story, he was decapitated and his ghost still searches for the head.

But the ghost story of a headless man searching for his head sounds like the story of the Bingham Lights of South Carolina and the Maco Lights of North Carolina and the Gurdon Light of Arkansas and . . . well, headless ghosts searching endlessly for their heads, especially down railroad lines—those stories seem endless. But with a little knowledge of the bobbing, weaving Min Min of Australia, only a little brain power can enlighten us: Australians describe the same thing.

Why would a glowing barn owl fly down railroad tracks at night? If it hungered only for insects, it would sit and gobble them up. For a nocturnal rodent, how far is it exposed while crossing railroad tracks? Too far to be comfortable in daylight. But in the dark of night, why worry? Take your time. A midnight snack, for a rat, can be easy to find; humans throw trash near the tracks. Dine where you find it . . . until . . . oops.

Can a nocturnal rat out-think a human? To us, it seems stupid to sit on railroad tracks, eating garbage while a light approaches. But then no rat ever born has screamed and run away from a headless ghost. No, moving lights (in a world with so many humans) should not appear dangerous to a rat, for glowing barn owls appear to be rare, or they rarely glow. And it takes no genius of an owl, glowing or not, to fly down railroad tracks at night. I think that at least a few bioluminescent barn owls live in the United States (glowing for whatever reasons), and they account for many ghost lights. But what about the Marfa Lights?

The dance patterns of Marfa Lights resemble no flock of hunting barn owls. No, our old friend Tyto Alba cannot compete here and it dare not try. But it has illuminated part of the answer to the puzzle. The predators of Southern Texas show greater intelligence than most birds and some of them may be larger than any owl. This cryptid may be related to the ropen of Papua New Guinea (another nocturnal glowing flyer). If so, it will make a story more extraordinary than any headless ghost. Eyewitnesses describe the ropen like a giant long-tailed pterosaur.