The Owl Pages

A Review of accounts of luminosity in Barn Owls Tyto alba

By Fred Silcock (Page 2 of 5)

Recent evidence: Australia and the 'Min Min Light'

The Min Min Light, possibly Australia's equivalent to England's Will o' the Wisp, is an extensively documented phenomenon and has been the subject of many published articles, radio and television programs. However, the cause has never been satisfactorily explained. The name Min Min is of obscure origin but is thought to be Aboriginal, because stories about the phenomenon are found in Aboriginal mythology (as related by many correspondents, quoting Aboriginal informants). In some stories the Min Min is regarded as evil, in one example being a spirit that flies about in the night stealing children; in others, the spirits of lost travellers or the deceased. The earliest written references to the Min Min phenomenon that I can find are in the years 1838 (Wannan 1970) and 1860 (Allan 1860).

The name Will o' the Wisp for the Min Min Light is sometimes met with in Australia. In South Australia, where the Light has a wide distribution, it is known mostly as Jack o' Lantern. No doubt that name and Will o' the Wisp were given by early English settlers. Another name sometimes met with is Dead Men's Campfires.

A recent example of second-hand and personal accounts of the Light is given by Fran of Mt Isa (in Rule 1991, pp. 117 - 118), relating to Chatsworth station near Boulia in western Queensland. Therein, the Light is described as like a single car or motorbike headlight, fast but silent, or moving slowly and even hovering; it could appear and disappear, chase or be chased, and seemed to have some sort of intelligence.

Much of the detail in Kozicka (1994), on the Light's behaviour and characteristics, is consistent with the behaviour of birds. In Macnamara (1989) there is a chapter entitled 'Hard Work - A Min Min Light'. In this is the passage:

Looking around I saw a funny light which seemed to be following us. It scared me a little, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. 'Don't worry,' Moogoody said. 'You watch, I make light go.' Turning his horse towards the light he cracked his stockwhip and the light went out. 'That fellow bird follow cattle,' he said. 'They stir insects from grass and he make light to catch insects.'

In a radio interview in 1989 Macnamara told of one night following a Min Min for about a kilometre and, when eventually it settled on the branch of a stunted and partly dead tree, he sneaked to within about thirty paces of it. He flashed onto it the beam of a powerful torch whereupon the light in the tree immediately cut out and a large brown bird flew up. A Barn Owl viewed from the back could be said to be brown, and a bird taking to flight would quickly put its back to that from which it was fleeing.

In 1990, seeking to widen my knowledge of the Min Min Light, I placed an advertisement, in the form of a letter to the editor, in approximately 200 newspapers in rural areas throughout Australia and received in excess of 600 replies. From this exercise I learned that the Light occurs in every state, least in Tasmania with two reports coming only from the east coast, and most in Queensland (138 sites). In Victoria most sightings had taken place in the grain-growing areas of the north-west, with recent sightings in the St Arnaud region.

As well, much was learned about the behaviour of the Light and its place in Australian folklore, all remarkably similar to that of the Will o' the Wisp of Britain, and many accounts have a likeness to the behaviour of the Barn Owl. Many comparisons could be made. For example, the descriptions of English Barn Owls in hunting mode, right down to 'post hopping', given by Bunn et aI. (1982) bear striking similarities to the behaviour of the Min Min Light.

A description of Barn Owls hunting: 'Generally, however, there was some wind and the owls would hunt by beating slowly into it until the end of the plot or territory was reached; they would then fly back as fast downwind to begin again.' Compare with a description of a light phenomenon (Allan 1860) on a plain near Spring Ridge (NSW), at first thought to be a lantern:

I watched for some time and it [the Light] went on floating about the top of the grass and Bathurst Burrs. What was strange was that when it took those curving shifts it went against the wind, and then gradually floated back to the old place.

A typical example of the many replies I received is from Ken Harre (in Iitt. 8.7.1992), concerning the Binnaway district of New South Wales:

I can only give you a scant account as it was so long ago. In 1954 late autumn early winter on a sheep property [Myall Plains] in mid NSW. On 2-3 occasions I and another hand observed a well-known Will o' the Wisp which was often seen moving along a timbered ridge. It was ... car headlight size and ... there was no beam or reflection, but the brightness made it impossible to really know its size. The light would suddenly appear and move slowly, it would gain speed and change direction as if it had hit a tree and then move off a at greater speed. These changes of speed and direction were too fast for man or vehicle and in any case some ... were vertical to heights of 50 feet which was just above tree height. The light would come back to ground before disappearing as suddenly as it appeared.

In only one Australian report received was there a claim of a Light having been shot down and found to be a bird, near Winton around 1980. The shooter was a Sandy Taylor (deceased) of Winton, Queensland. The story was related by Taylor's sister (now deceased) and by a friend of Taylor's. The kind of bird was not known by these two people. Only one report named the lighted bird seen as being a Barn Owl. This story came from a farmer (Eddie Sutton) whose grandfather, as a young man, slept one night on top of a haystack near Charlton (Victoria) in about 1895. He woke during the night to find a light right beside him. As he stirred, the light cut out and revealed a bird which very quickly took to the air. The bird was believed to have been a Barn Owl.

One of the most interesting reports came from a man who, while engaged in night ploughing near Bellata (NSW) in the late 1940s, had a pair of Min Mins come into the paddock seven nights in a row. They arrived together then separated and stayed for about half an hour on every occasion. One often left off (hunting?) and sat for a time on a post; always the same post. Every time the ploughman got off the tractor and approached this light it took to the air, often cutting out. The man never saw them as birds but by their behaviour was convinced they were birds. He remarked, 'The one on the post always reminded me of an old-fashioned kettle.' After perhaps half an hour they would come together and leave the paddock. Always they came and went by the same route. It is a common occurrence for birds to follow ploughs and feed on disturbed prey, and Barn Owls do so at times.

In one incident related to me, a Barn Owl regularly followed a potato-harvesting machine in Germany (at Detmold in 1948) in daylight, and caught mice that were unearthed; on one occasion a fight ensued when a Goshawk Accipiter gentilis attempted robbery.

In the cases where luminosity has been attributed to a bird, indications were that most light was given off from the breast. The story told by Charlie Campbell is an example. About 40 years ago, Campbell was living in a cottage on Davenport Downs station in the Channel Country of western Queensland. At the end of his cottage and about 6 metres from the door was a rainwater tank that had a dripping tap. Under the tap and on the ground was a basin that caught the drips. Campbell had often seen birds drinking from the basin. One very dark night he was sitting outside his door when he saw what he took to he a Min coming towards him. He sat quietly and waited. The light was not very bright, in fact it was quite dull and no more than a few centimetres in diameter. The Min Min went to the basin at the tank.

Campbell could see nothing that was like a bird. He noticed that the glowing spot vanished every now and again and, believing he was observing a bird, assumed that the glow was being obscured as the creature lowered its head to drink. The event was over in less than a minute and Campbell watched the Min Min take to the air and depart. The next night the Min Min came again and went to the basin. On this occasion Campbell stood and approached the light whereupon it immediately rose and quickly fled. Campbell never saw it again at the basin.

The intensity of the Light is indicated by the experience of W.M. Wharton, a station owner near Julia Creek, Queensland. From behind a hedge Wharton once viewed a Min Min perched on the end of a springboard over a swimming pool. He said, 'As I looked into this extremely bright light it was akin to looking into the headlights of a car from fifteen feet away. 'That was his impression. He went on to say that the light remained at that strength for about a minute and not until it began to fade, which took place rapidly, did he briefly see the shape of a bird.

The night was very dark. He could faintly make out the form of the bird as it fed on insects that had landed on the board. Shortly afterwards the bird ran fast down the board with loping strides and took to the air. There was just enough glow still coming from the bird to enable Wharton to watch it fly beneath some trees and disappear. He blamed the darkness for not being able to identify the kind of bird.

Wharton later stated that at the time he thought the bird's speed when running down the board to be too fast for the bird to be an owl. He said that he regarded owls as rather dull, slow-moving creatures. The 'loping strides' and 'fast running' referred to by Wharton might be worth comparing with a statement in Bunn et al. (1982): 'Barn Owls are extraordinarily agile on their feet, running fast, sometimes with a peculiar skipping action...

The only report I've seen of a Min Min uttering a sound described the noise as 'a high-pitched scream' (at Edillilie, SA, 1936; conditions not stated). Similarly, the call of the Barn Owl is described as a screech or scream.

The informants were laypeople often relying on memory or on anecdotes handed down from relatives or acquaintances. Therefore, there was no precise information on seasons, dates, times, weather conditions or ambient lighting conditions (sunset, moon, stars, overcast etc.). It is not possible to use details of precise time and place to obtain pertinent records of weather and moon phase. Nevertheless, it is apparent that Min Min sightings were variously made in rain, on very dark nights and on clear nights, and most were made in autumn and winter. One informant said that in the wheatbelt of South Australia they were seen most during the severe drought of the mid 1940s.

A recurrent theme in Min Min sightings in the arid zone is the proximity of water. Kozicka (1994) reported that in all cases artesian bores were in the vicinity. In many cases reported to me, bore drains were mentioned; in one case an observer watched two Min Mins chasing each other up and down a bore drain.

Graham Jones, of Alexandria station (NT), told of a swamp at which he had seen more Min Mins than anywhere else. Snakes were abundant in the swamp, perhaps suggesting abundant prey (rodents) for owls too. Another informant reported Min Mins as regularly seen weaving backwards and forwards across station dams, as if hunting flying insects.

Norman Macnamara, an authority on Min Mins, stated (pers. comm.) that if he were going to observe them he would wait at waterholes. England's Will o' the Wisp is sometimes associated with marshes, though not always, and that country is in any case a much wetter place than Australia. The Australian phenomenon is also associated with water to the extent possible in a dry continent.

Page updated 2006-06-07