The first reported sighting of Owlman took place in the town of Mawnan, Cornwall on 17 April 1976. The Melling family, consisting of Don, his wife, and their two daughters June (12) and Vicky (9), were camping near Mawnan when they stopped for a picnic in the wooded area next to the medieval St. Mawnan and St. Stephen’s Church. While their parents set up the picnic, the sisters went off to play in the churchyard cemetery.
Not long after, Don and his wife heard a scream from the direction of the church and saw their daughters sprint towards the family’s car. Inconsolable by their parents, the sisters insisted the family leave the area immediately. Once safely back at their campsite, the sisters recalled what they saw: while playing around the gravestones June and Vicky heard a strange sound before spotting a large bird-like human hovering a few feet above the church’s tower.
Later that day, Don Melling confronted paranormal researcher Tony Shiels at the Penryn Steam Fair after learning that Shiels was likely responsible for a lot of the ‘paranormal happenings’ in the area. Don accused Shiels of pulling a prank on his daughters, but Shiels plead innocent before asking if he could speak to June and Vicky about what they saw. Don refused a meeting between Shiels and his daughters who were still shaken up by the incident, but gave Shiels a drawing that June had made of the “Bird-Man” they saw.
This first sighting of Owlman was then reported by Shiels in the magazine Fortean Times, along with his interpretation of June’s drawing:
Following the Melling’s encounter, a number of eye-witness reports of Owlman began to surface around Mawnan. Sally Chapman and Barbara Perry (both aged 14) encountered the creature while on a camping trip a few months later. The teenagers reported a terrifying beast standing and watching them 20 yards away from their campsite that was as large as a man with pointed ears, glowing eyes, and sharp claws. Once spotted, the figure flew up into the trees and disappeared into the night. According to Shiels, he received this eyewitness account from the girls after bumping into them at the beach located below St. Mawnan and St. Stephen’s Church.
More sightings followed between 1976 and 1995, but the total number wasn’t particularly high. In the summer of either 1988 or 1989 a teenage boy claimed to encounter Owlman while on holiday with his girlfriend and her family. While the couple took an evening stroll, possibly near St. Mawnan and St. Stephen’s Church (when describing the incident 6 years later he struggled to remember the exact location), they came across a figure standing in a tree approximately fifteen-feet above them. He recalled the creature being about four feet tall, with a head of feathers, the body of a man, a flat face, pincers on its feet, and a light-grey coloured with long wings. Petrified, the couple watched the creature until it jumped down behind the tree and they took the opportunity to run away.
Another sighting often mentioned online comes from an American student who claimed to see Owlman near St. Mawnan and St. Stephen’s Church when visiting the area. In 1995 she wrote about her experience to the Western Morning News, a daily regional newspaper for the Southwest of England. However I’ve been unable to find the article so I question if this sighting and report actually occured.
In his book Britain’s Paranormal Forests: Encounters in the Woods, Peter A. McCue describes an Owlman testimony he received from a woman named Barbara Fennel who ran a paranormal investigation group based in London. A member of her group claimed to know someone who had an encounter with Owlman who McCue refers to as ‘Kate’. Barbara met with Kate who testified what she saw with her friend ‘Ann’ on the evening of May of 1978. While walking home on the road along St. Mawnan and St. Stephen’s Church, Ann began to cry and point frantically towards the church, claiming she saw a man with wings. Kate wrote in her statement to Barbara:
… I looked back, and saw a huge birdman-like creature starting to fly towards the farm. It was sort of rising after taking off. It seemed about four feet long and had a pointy beak and huge eyes. They weren’t red or anything, but they were looking at us. Here’s the thing, though: it had human-like features, such as a mouth and lips, but with a beak where the nose would be. The wings were the scariest part. They were almost like a huge feathery cloak, which seemed to move together as it flapped. They hardly seemed to separate, like a bird’s wings do. Even to this day, I’ve never seen anything so bizarre as that.McCue, Peter A. Britain’s Paranormal Forests: Encounters in the Woods. 2019.
Kate and Ann hid in a hedge while the creature watched them, the only sound in the air was the flapping of its wings. Eventually the creature disappeared into the woods, leaving the girls terrifying and confused. Kate told Barbara that no one believed her story despite rumours circulating Mawnan about the Owlman sightings. She wrote “after all these years, I can only say that I don’t believe it was a bloody owl.”
A few common details emerge when comparing the various eye-witness accounts. Each occured within the Mawnan area, primarily near St. Mawnan and St. Stephen’s Church. The witnesses were all teenagers or children when they had their Owlman encounter. And outside of one teenage boy, all the witnesses were female. They all describe Owlman in a similar way (head of a bird, body of a man). And, interestingly, none report Owlman as being aggressive, just creepy. Once spotted he always took off and didn’t attempt to pursue anyone.
So what exactly was going on in Mawnan? What was Owlman? And did he actually exist?
The Least Exciting but most Likely Explanation: Owlman is Just an Owl
Let’s start with the most straightforward explanation before diving into the more outlandish ones. Any reasonable reader of the Owlman stories can deduce that the Owlman sightings were most likely kids being spooked by owls, despite Kate’s claims that it absolutely was not “a bloody owl”. While it might sound like a rather mundane explanation, owls have a long history of making humans uneasy. So it isn’t unreasonable to assume that an unexpected owl can cause someone a fright, especially if that someone is young with an overactive imagination. There are numerous examples throughout history of owls being considered nefarious symbols of bad luck and death, going against the grain of the ‘wise owl’ trope we’re most used to hearing:
- For the Romans, an owl’s hoot was a sign of death and, to Roman soldiers, their presence was a sign of impending defeat. Roman author Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History from the 1st century, describes the owl as “the monster of the night” and a “direful omen to see it in a city”.
- In Leviticus 11, when God is instructing Moses and Aaron on what animals are ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ to consume, he lists owls and other birds such as vultures and ravens as “abominations”.
- In English folklore, owls have the unfortunate roll as ‘harbingers of doom’ and an owl flying past a window signifies an upcoming death in the family.
- In Mexico, the Aztec god of the dead Mictlāntēcutli was associated with owls and other night time critters such as bats and spiders.
- In a 13th century medieval bestiary (M.S. Bodley 764), screech-owls “signif[y] the wailing of sinners in hell”.
- And in some areas of the world, people believe that owls are actually humans that have been transformed by witches due to their almost human-like face when compared to other birds.
- There’s also evidence that a lot of early ghost stories could have been inspired by owls.
To put it plainly, owls have been giving us the creeps for a long, long time.
To go back even further, an interesting use of owl iconography from the ancient world is the Burney Relief, possibly from Babylon c. 1800-1750. While the female figure has multiple identifications, some researches believe she is Ereshkigal the goddess of Kur, the Sumerian mythological equivalent of the underworld. The owls flanking the goddess are thought to represent the darkness of the underworld. Interestingly, the goddess shares similar physical characteristics as Owlman, including wings and talons, while keeping an overall humanoid form. In the case of Ereshkigal, the position of her wings (pointing downward) was used in Mesopotamian art to associate a particular figure with the underworld. This feature is also mirrored in her owls and can also be found in iconography of Mesopotamian demons such as Pazuzu (of The Exorcist fame).
A recent example of owls unsettling humans comes from a 2017 viral video from Visakhapatnam, India that had viewers convinced the film showed two white, gangly aliens with large soulless black eyes. In reality, the ‘aliens’ were actually baby owls between 2-3 weeks old. In a Popular Mechanics article, ornithologist Kevin McGowan explains why the owls in the video look so terrifying. According to McGowan, baby owls take time to grow their feathers, making them appear almost ‘naked’ and white in the video. And unlike other types of birds, owls have eyes on the front of their head, which appear more prominent and alien when the owls are still young. Most disturbing is the birds’ posture, which makes them look like humanoids instead of birds. However, McGowan points out that these owls were likely startled, so their vertical posture was a result of shock. However, it isn’t unreasonable to watch the video and feel a little disturbed. It really goes to show that sometimes owls are just plain creepy, even when they’re babies.
But why have owls been given this reputation? What is it about them instinctually unsettles us? In an interview with Inverse, folklore historian Adrienne Mayor attributes this fear to the eerie silence of an owl’s flight and their sudden piercing cry. She says, “just the fact that you don’t know where it is, but you hear this terrifying sound. That’s pretty scary when you think that humans (once) lived in the dark.” The anatomy of an owl is also unsettling. While owl’s are known for being able to turn their heads 270 degrees, their eyes are also tubular, which means they are fixed in place and unable to move around. In order to see around them, owls have to turn their head, so they are always looking straight forward. Imagine how unsettling it would be if humans had to look around like that.
While owls don’t often attack humans, they can become defensive of their nesting places or an area they deem as their territory. Since the sightings in Mawnan were contained to one small area, it’s possible an owl nested nearby and didn’t appreciate humans getting too close.
It’s easy to observe that, as a society, we have some sort of primal suspicion towards owls. Whether or not this suspicion is conscious, it’s the difference between someone looking up in the night sky and seeing an owl versus someone else seeing a flying, red-eyed monster. And besides, nearly anything can look creepy at night, especially if seen lurking near a medieval church. If you’re still not convinced that owls can be scary, imagine taking a night time stroll through the forest and hearing this coming from somewhere out in the darkness.
This is my long winded way of saying that, despite Kate’s statement, the Owlman sightings (if they happened at all — more on that later) were most likely just owls being owls. And based on history, natural human instinct, and the overactive imagination of young people, this isn’t an unreasonable conclusion.
The Most Exciting but Least Likely Explanation: Owlman is an Alien
Tinfoil hats on! Let’s talk about the very peculiar and somewhat creepy association between owls and aliens and the possibility that the Owlman sightings were actually abduction stories. Sound crazy? That’s because it is. But let’s talk about it anyways.
The owl/alien connection was popularised by the 2009 horror film The Fourth Kind, but there were reports of owls showing up before alien encounters long before the film’s release. While digging through the Archives for UFO Research (AFU), Swedish UFO researcher Håkan Blomqvist uncovered a number of curious reports supporting the connection between owls and UFOs. In the summer of 1980, Ingvar Oskar Johansson was driving near Blomstermåla while on holiday in Sweden when the sky suddenly burst with blue light and an owl landed on his windscreen. Blomqvist writes, “the face of the owl appears very human and this scares Ingvar as he feels like the owl is looking at him.” Also from the archive was the story of two men travelling through Dalarna in the summer of 1966 when they came across an owl sitting on a post at a rest stop. The two men claimed that hovering 150m in the air above the owl, was a ‘large silver coloured craft’.
In an interview with Vice, author Mike Clelland discusses various eye-witness reports he received for his book The Messengers supporting the strange connection between owls and extraterrestrial encounters. One such witness named Ron Johnson recalled a time when an absurd amount of owls took over his mother’s front porch. For many days the owls remained in front of the house, and one had a habit of always watching Johnson leave in the morning for work and return to the house in the evening. One night at midnight, Johnson felt a sudden urge to leave the house. When he did, he saw “a four-foot-tall owl standing in his driveway, waiting to exchange stares”. Clelland says that these types of encounters aren’t uncommon. It’s interesting that the concept of a human sized owl isn’t restricted to our Owlman, but also appears in obscure UFO reporting.
So what exactly are owls meant to be? Tools for aliens to keep an eye on humans? Can the aliens themselves shapeshift into owls? While the reason why this supposedly happens is never really answered, McCue’s aforementioned book Britain’s Paranormal Forests proposes a different reason for the potential connection between owls and aliens:
It has been suggested that aliens are able to influence the minds of people they abduct, substituting more palatable, conventional imagery (e.g. of deer or owls) for what would otherwise be traumatic recollections of the abductors. These supposedly false recollections have been referred to as ‘screen memories’.McCue, Peter A. Britain’s Paranormal Forests: Encounters in the Woods. 2019.
Tinfoil hat still on? If these ‘screen memories’ are at play in the case of Owlman, the creature seen around the Mawnan church could be an alien that has replaced the true image of itself with the image of something familiar and normal to humans — an owl. But the trauma from the event isn’t completely forgotten, manifesting in the bizarre humanoid/owl hybrid that Owlman witnesses claim they saw.
I want to stress that the connection between owls and UFO sightings/aliens is not a common discussion among the majority of ufologists — so this idea is even too crazy for them. But it is another interesting example of owls falling victim, once again, to antagonization by humans. Is it possible Owlman was an alien? Or a botched screen memory to cover up the creature’s ‘true’ form? I’m compelled to think that this is definitely not the case. But the similarities between alleged owl/alien encounters and Owlman sightings are curious enough to include here.
Bonus Tinfoil-Hat Theory: Owlman and the West Virginian Mothman are the Same Type of Creature
I love the story of Mothman, one of my earliest internet rabbit-holes. If you’re a fan of monster stories and cryptozoology, it’s likely you’ve already made the connection between Owlman and Mothman since they pretty much sound exactly like the same creature.
For the uninformed —
Pre-dating Owlman by a little less than a decade, Owlman’s American cousin was reportedly seen around Point Pleasant, West Virginia between November 1966 and December 1967. The first sighting of Mothman was reported by five men digging a grave in Clendenin who saw the shadow of a creature fly over their heads, distinctly human shaped. The second sighting was reported by Roger and Linda Scarberry and Steve and Marry Mallete who, on 15 November 1966, were chased by a shadowy creature with glowing red eyes and a wingspan of at least 10 feet, while driving in the McClintic Wildlife Management Area, a former WW2 munitions plant known locally as ‘the TNT area’.
Despite the bulk of Mothman encounters happening in the late 60s, occasional sightings still occur throughout the last decade. The image above is a recent alleged photograph of Mothman, taken by a man driving along State Route 2 in 2016. According to the man (who was unnamed), he spotted the red-eyed creature jumping from tree to tree when he snapped the photo.
Unlike Mawnan, who choose to let Owlman fade into obscurity, Point Pleasant has taken the opportunity to make their local cryptid a tourist attraction. Visitors to the town are greeted by a twelve foot metallic Mothman statue located outside the Mothman Museum (that’s right, he has his own museum). And every year, Point Pleasant hosts its Annual Mothman Festival attracting an estimated twelve thousand people yearly. While Mothman’s popularity is leagues above poor Owlman, the two have a number of attributes in common that make their stories eerily similar.
As with Owlman, it’s been proposed that Mothman sightings could be nothing more than owls, particularly Barred Owls. According to an article written for The National Audubon Society, Barred Owls share a number of important characteristics with Mothman. These include a round head, black eyes, a preference to perch in forests, a large wingspan, and the ability to fly silently through the night. Even more incriminating, Barred Owls eyes appear to glow red in the dark due to the large concentration of blood vessels around their eyes, an important detail in Mothman sightings. And the McClintic Wildlife Management Area (known as the former TNT Area from the Mothman legend) is populated by Barred Owls.
The major different between Mothman and Owlman is their temperaments. While Mothman was no stranger to chasing his victims, Owlman was mostly a curious observer. However, the two cryptids share more similarities than differences: both typically appear at night (other than the first sighting by June and Vicky Melling which took place during the day), both have distinctly humanoid bodies and a large wingspan, and both creatures are reported to be about the size of a human. And despite Mothman’s name, his features are typically considered more owl or bat-like.
So if we want to consider the Owlman and Mothman as real, they could fit into the same category of nocturnal/humanoid hybrids, or possibly even the exact same type of creature. Regardless, its interesting to see two similar creatures appearing in local legends on two separate continents.
The Questionable Legitimacy of Owlman: A Consideration of Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels
This is all assuming that there was an Owlman sighting in the first place. The first reported sighting of Owlman that I relayed at the beginning of this article didn’t come from Don Melling or his children, but from Tony Shiels. As far as I could find, any information about what happened on 17 April 1976 has never been told by the actual Melling family (if they existed in the first place).
To really understand what was going on in Mawnan during 1976, let’s ignore speculation of what Owlman could be and instead consider the source of where it all started: from the mouth (or rather, pen) of Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels. Because unlike many local legends, the paranormal investigation of Tony Shiels and his role in ‘breaking’ the story of the original Owlman sighting, gives this particular tale a solid beginning.
Along with his work as a paranormal researcher, Shiels (now based in Ireland) is primarily known as an artist and magician. Born in Salford, Greater Manchester in 1938, Shiels began his art career studying at Blackpool School of Art and Hatherley School of Fine Art in London. He eventually moved to Cornwall in the 1970s and began performing stage magic under the name ‘Wizard of the West’. And, along with members of his family, Shiels formed his own theatre company called ‘Tom Fools Theatre of Tomfoolery’. Among his famous exploits are his role as a ‘monster hunter’ and taking a too-good-to-be-true hoax photograph of the Loch Ness Monster. However, Shiels is first and foremost an artist, practicing what he refers to as ‘surrealchemy’, a play on the art movement surrealism.
One of Shiels’ most well known ventures as a magician was the conjuring of a sea monster (known as Morgawr) off the coast of Falmouth, Cornwall. However, some believe that the history of the creature stems directly back to Tony Shiels … much like Owlman.
Photographs were taken of the Morgawr and sent to the Falmouth Packet newspaper in 1976 under the name ‘Mary F’. It’s thought that ‘Mary F’ was actually Shiels attempting to bring publicity to his newly created creature by staging some (obviously fake) photographs. This is not dissimilar from the June Melling drawing of Owlman that was likely manufactured by Shiels along with the entire Owlman narrative. So either Shiels is extremely lucky in his sightings and experiences with previously unknown monsters, or he’s making everything up. And mentioning Mothman in relation to Owlman isn’t simply because of the similarities of the creatures, but also to highlight the fact that the Mothman incidents occured nearly a decade before Owlman was first sighted in Mawnan, Cornwall. Perhaps this provided inspiration for the creation of Mothman’s Cornish cousin.
Either way, I think the most realistic explanations for the Mawnan Owlman sightings are either a case of mistaken identity (poor owls) or an elaborate prank being played by an eccentric artist and magician who has a suspicious history of pulling similar pranks. So did Shiels make the story and witness up? Or did he don a homemade owl costume and purposely scare teenagers and children in order to get the Owlman story circulating? Was Owlman some sort of performative art piece? Our friendly neighbourhood magician might never tell.
But Shiels doesn’t shy away from his eccentric nature. In an interview with Rupert White for Art Cornwall, Shiels refers to himself as “a charlatan and a mountebank” and that he is even sceptical of his own doings. However, he affirms that the ‘monster-raising’ he conducted on the coast of Cornwall was not staged and that he was as surprised as anyone that creatures actually came out of the water. Shiels closes the interview with “its been a delight talking… but you mustn’t believe a word I say…”.
This is one of those instances, like with Sam the Sandown Clown, that we will probably never know what exactly was going on in Mawnan between 1976 and 1995 (unless Shiels fesses up, but that isn’t likely). I’m a sucker for a good monster story and Owlman is a curious, if obscure, member of the British cryptid canon worthy of discussion and a place in the country’s creepy history. Even if he might be the product of an eccentric magician.
Sources and Additional Reading
ArtCornwall – Monstermind: The Magical Life and Art of Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels
ArtCornwall – Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels on painting, surrealism and raising monsters
Audubon – Is the Mothman of West Virginia an Owl?
Barber, Richard. Bestiary, MS Bodley 764. The Boydell Press, 1993.
BBC News – Serpents, owl men and demon dogs
BBC Radio 4 – Seven birds and their mysterious folklore
BBC Radio 4 – Seven things you didn’t know about owls
Georgia Wildlife – Out My Backdoor, Owls Don’t Deserve Their Bad Reputation
Inverse – Why are owls so scary? A folklore historian explains the ancient reasons
McCue, Peter A. Britain’s Paranormal Forests: Encounters in the Woods. 2019.
Mysterious Universe – Investigator Claims to Have Captured Footage of “Owlman,” Mothman’s UK Cousin
Mysterious Universe – Profiling the U.K.’s “Mothmen”
Nerdist – What is the Mothman and Why are we so Obsessed?
Popular Mechanics – The Internet Thinks These Things Are Aliens. The Truth is Much More Sinister.
Tetrapod Zoology Podcast – Morgawr and the Mary F Photos
The Lineup – Horror in Cornwall: The Legend of the Cornish Owlman
UFO Archives – Owls and UFOs
Vice – For UFO Hunters, the Owls Really Aren’t What They Seem
Wikipedia – Owlman
World History Encyclopaedia – The Queen of the Night