Prove your humanity

This story first aired on October 27, 2017

2022 Update: Creatures of the Night event will be held at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve on Oct. 14-15 and Oct. 20-21, Succop Nature Park on Friday, Oct. 21, and Buffalo Creek Nature Park on Saturday, Oct. 29. Go to the calendar to register.

Do owls have the best hearing? How well can bats really see at night? Why do possums play dead?  The Audubon Society of Western PA answers those questions – and many more – on their Creatures of the Night event.

The first animal you meet on the tour isn’t spooky at all. It’s a firefly who lights the way with a LED light dangling out from her back wings.

“I’m actually a beetle,” says Mary Eaman, a volunteer naturalist at Beechwood Farms and Nature Reserve. “You can tell that because I have two sets of wings. The outer wings are hard, and shell-like, and the inner wings are soft. I kind of think I am an M&M: hard on the outside, soft on the inside.”

Our group  – which includes Wonder Woman, Harry Potter, and a princess  – follows close behind Mary the firefly as she leads the way down a path to a larger-than-life Horned Owl waiting in the dark.

LISTEN: “Meet the Creatures of the Night, if You Dare”

“I’m just waking up. I had a busy night last night, catching creatures,” explains Paul Schmitt, playing the role of the friendly owl. “An owl has no teeth, so they eat the whole mouse bones and all. And about 12 hours later, they regurgitate…it means you throw up. I have to do that every day.  I had a nice big juicy mouse about 12 hours ago. Oh, wait a minute, here it comes. . . “

The owl hacks and coughs, and then the firefly shines her light on a real, recently regurgitated owl pellet. Kids are allowed to touch it, but most have to be convinced.

“See, this is a jaw bone? All kind of stuff in here,” says the owl. “This is a mouse. Here’s a wishbone, a little baby wishbone. It was juicy, it was nice! You’re going to see some other creatures out there. You can tell them, guess who’s going to have them for dinner tonight!”

The kids are encouraged to give a hoot and get a “mouse on a stick” for a treat (it’s actually a lollipop). Our group continues along the path, around the pond, and towards another creature, waiting in the night.

“Well, it’s nice to see this many people in the woods at night. I know what you guys are. Do you know what I am?” asks a very fuzzy creature portrayed by Ken Miller. 

“A leopard?” guesses a clearly-confused child.  

“Nope, I’m a possum. And I’m one of the few things out at night that’s been around almost forever. They found bones of me with the dinosaurs. I’ve got prehensile thumbs on my feet. Hardly anything has prehensile thumbs! People have them, and apes have them, and possums have them, and that’s it! And I can eat almost anything. He’s like the junk man of the forest. The thing that’s really cool about me, though? I can go thump and play dead. I just drop in a heap. And not only that, but I let off this awful smell. It smells like I’ve been dead for at least two weeks! So the fox walks up and looks at the old dead possum, and they decide they aren’t going to eat me at all. And I walk away.”

Ken Miller played the part of the junkyard of the forest, the possum. Not sure you’d want to run into him in the woods at night. Photo: Audubon Society of Western PA

That helps explain why possums have been around such a long time. As we’re leaving, a woman tells me that her father told her that if you’re ever lost in the woods and starving, you can always catch a possum, kill it with a stone and eat it. Solid advice.

Next up? The brown bat, played by Karen Beeken.

“I can’t see very well. . . who is that? Come here a little closer,” she taunts. “The doctor says I probably need glasses, but what does he know?  I am a very special mammal because I can fly! I am the only mammal who can fly. I hate to brag, but I’m also very agile. So using my echolocation, even in the darkness, I can dodge fences and buildings  — all while feasting on delectable mosquitoes and crunchy gnats. Yum!”

Brown bat explains that since it’s getting cold out, she’s getting sleepy and will soon fly into a cave in the woods to spend the winter. “It’s not the beach,” she says, “but it sure beats eating insects in the snow!”