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October 31, 2014: The Luminous Owls Of N…orfolk

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This piece was written by Nigel Herwin.

Here’s a forgotten tale of local weirdness and wildlife. Just over a century ago something very strange happened to the owls of Norfolk. They started to glow in the dark.

The first recorded sighting of a luminous owl was by gamekeeper Fred Rolfe at West Bilney Hall, near King’s Lynn in 1897. Over several nights he saw a strange light so, armed with a shotgun, he was determined to solve the mystery:

“At last I saw the light skimming over the ground, I waited till it came within a few yards of me, and then fired at the light. It being dark, you may fancy my surprise when I found a poor, half-starved barn owl dead on the ground. I thought he had been gathering glow-worms…”

Over the next few years there were more sightings of luminous owls across the county. A pair were spotted several times by naturalist R. J. W. Purdy at Foulsham over Christmas 1907. Remarking on the brightness of the bird he stated:

“…it literally lighted up the branches of the trees as it flew past them. After watching it for about half an hour, it was joined by a companion bird hardly so bright. This kept about 100 yards behind it, but not constantly. As they appeared one on each side of a copse it was one of the most curious and pretty sights we ever beheld.”

The period 1907-8 seems to be the height of the luminous owl sightings, with the birds being spotted as far away as Cromer, Aylsham and Hellesdon. There were a few more sightings in the early 1920s but none reported since.

So what caused the barn owls of Norfolk to become luminous? There’s various theories, ranging from phosphorescent bacteria, a fungal infection or a mysterious luminous dust-like substance that was blowing around Norfolk in 1907. It certainly wasn’t through gathering glow-worms, however.

So, if you have any ideas as to why the owls of Norfolk glowed in the dark, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Also, on a similar theme, I’d be interested to hear why, in 1990, the swans of Norwich turned blue…

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