In the piney mountains and desert mesas of southcentral New Mexico, citizens of the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation still tell legends of an enormous and evil bird: Big Owl.
The Jicarilla Apaches, along the state’s northern edge, also talk of Big Owl—near slickrock canyons and beneath the gray bluffs of their reservation—but in their stories Big Owl will often paralyze humans just by staring at them, and after doing so swallows them whole, just as smaller owls swallow mice.
Mark A. Hall, noted cryptozoologist and author of Thunderbirds: America’s Living Legends of Giant Birds, is convinced that such stories may actually have a basis in fact, in sightings of an actual undocumented species of three-to-five-foot-tall giant owl, a species humorously nicknamed Bighoot.
Ornimegalonyx oteroi, or the Cuban giant owl, was an approximately three-foot-tall owl that lived in what’s now western Cuba up until about 8,000 years ago. In the last few decades, three nearly intact skeletons of this bird have been found in Cuban caves, and their size and bone structure suggest this owl was similar to an oversized version of the common burrowing owl, with long legs and an inability to fly for more than short distances.
Hall believes that perhaps some giant owls survived extinction, migrated, reproduced, and became part of New Mexico’s Apache oral histories—and a number of intriguing points support his case. Mentions of giant owls occur throughout the mythology of American and Canadian Indian tribes. Many Iroquois once feared what they called Flying Heads—man-sized, bodiless, open-mouthed heads covered in ragged hair—heads that could fly in a halting way, were armed with talons, and craved humans. Hall has theorized that the Flying Heads’ hair was actually wings and feathers, and the Flying Heads themselves actually giant owls.
Sightings of giant owls continued into the era of North America’s first European-American settlers. According to Hall, some settlers saw their livestock carried off by enormous birds they called Booger Owls—and such sightings have persisted into the present, into oral histories and urban legends, across America and across the Southwest.
“I have heard of them being encountered in Arizona, so New Mexico would be just as likely,” Hall said.
In a chapter of Cryptozoology and the Investigation of Lesser-Known Mystery Animals, New Mexico journalist Jerry A. Padilla recounted a Taos woman’s encounter with an owl she estimated to be at least four and half feet tall. This incident reportedly took place in the 1950s, not far north of the New Mexico-Colorado state line, when Taos resident Rosa M. Lucero was a little girl. Lucero recalled the giant owl wandering silently from a cluster of willows, walking back and forth, and just staring at her and her grandmother, Elena Bustos Lucero, as the two of them frantically gestured the Sign of the Cross.
“It just walked around in the garden by the willows,” said Rosa Lucero in the above-mentioned book. “My grandmother was convinced it was a nagual, someone taking the form of an owl, because she herself said that in all her long life she’d never encountered an owl so large and unafraid of people.”
Though generally described as making a hooting sound, owls are sometimes said to him. The Internet is studded with mentions of owls humming as coyotes howl, owls humming the sounds of the night, and barn owls humming country folks to sleep. Taos Tales, by Elsie Clews Parson, includes a northern New Mexico oral history of a coyote who “went singing and at the end of every song he said like the owl, hum! hum! (grunt).”
A much better-known hum in northern New Mexico is the notorious Taos Hum—a low, pulsing throb of a sound that torments about two percent of Taos’s population, causing anxiety, dizziness, headaches, nosebleeds, and insomnia. Many people have suggested possible explanations—a government project, aliens, mass hysteria—but the cause of the Hum remains a mystery.
Would it be ridiculous, then, to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the Taos Hum might be caused by man-sized owls—by the Bighoot—by a number of such owls humming through the forests of the northern New Mexico woods?
Well, would it?
Yes. The answer is yes. It would be.