An Owl-rabbit Hybrid?

Hybrids out of History

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EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD GENETICS

     
This last bird derives its name from its feet, which are covered, as it were, with the fur of a hare.
Pliny the Elder The Natural History, 10:68
Menominee River Map
Menominee River MapLocation of the Menominee River

Note: Any claim that hybrids can be produced from this highly disparate and very poorly documented cross would require confirmation.

According to contemporary news reports, an owl-rabbit hybrid was shot, while airborne, on Michigan's Menominee River in 1898. Thus, the following notice appeared on page 3, column 4, of the June 10, 1898, issue of The Topeka State Journal, a newspaper published in Topeka, Kansas (source):

MICHIGAN PRODUCT

Combination of Animal and Bird Falls
to a Druggist’s Gun.

    Menominee, Mich., June 10.—An animal bird—half owl and half rabbit—is Michigan’s latest contribution to natural history.
    Henry Neville, a druggist of this city was up the [Menominee] river hunting and fishing the other day and he saw what he at first glance supposed to be an owl flying over his head. He fired, and found that the bird he had shot looked like a rabbit. It seemed to have taken refuge under a log, and all that could be seen was its head. At any rate, Neville pulled the animal out of the hole, and saw that it had wings and was the exact counterpart of an owl with the exception of its head, neck and legs. These were like those of a rabbit. The nose, ears, eyes and neck were a rabbit’s, and the legs from the thighs down to the claws were a rabbit’s. The body and wings were those of an owl, the feathers extending to the claws, which were shaped like a rabbit’s, except that they were more than twice as long. The body and wings were gray, but the head and legs were brown.
Note: It has been my policy in listing reports of hybrids to include all serious allegations, especially those of scholars, whether or not the hybrid alleged seems possible or likely to me. This policy, I think, helps to eliminate subjective judgment on my part, and therefore should remove at least one source of systematic bias from my work. It also helps to fulfill the ethical obligation of telling not just the truth, but the whole truth.

This story appeared in many newspapers around the country that year, but seems to have originated with the Menominee Enterprise, a newspaper published in Menominee, Michigan.

Another report about the same event, which adds some additional information, appeared on page 2 of the June 11, 1898, issue of The Weekly Wisconsin, a newspaper published in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (source)

A Menominee Man Shoots a Queer Combination of Owl and Rabbit.

rabbit mating with chickenIt's well known that buck rabbits will mate with birds.
    Menominee, Mich., June 7.—[Special.]—An animal-bird—half owl and half rabbit—is Michigan’s latest contribution to natural history. Henry Neville, a druggist of this city, was up the river hunting and fishing the other day and he saw what he at first glance supposed to be an owl flying over his head. He fired and the object shot at came to the ground. He was on the point of leaving his prey where it fell, when one of his companions advised him to go and see what it was. His astonishment cannot be described when he found that the bird he had shot looked like a rabbit. It seemed to have taken refuge under a log, and all that could be seen was its head, and it surely was a rabbit’s head, At any rate, Neville pulled the animal out of its hole, and imagine his surprise when he saw that it had wings and was the exact counterpart of an owl with the exception of its head, neck and legs. These were like those of a rabbit. The nose, ears, eyes and neck were a rabbit’s, and the legs from the thighs down to the claws were a rabbit’s. The body and wings were those of an owl, the feathers extending to the claws, which were shaped like a rabbit’s, except that they were more than twice as long. The body and wings were gray, but the head and legs were brown. Mr. Neville brought the curiosity to this city, and it has been taxidermized by M. M. Stierle. It is the greatest curiosity ever seen in this section of the country. It stands about two feet high. Some years ago, a Peshtigo [Wisconsin] tanner found a chicken-rabbit among one of his broods, but this is more remarkable even than that.

One question that arises in connection with these reports: Even if one were to grant that this was a bird-rabbit hybrid, how was the bird portion of this tertium quid identified as owl? The most distinctive portion of an owl's anatomy is the head, and this creature was supposed to have had a rabbit's head. Moreover, the legs and feet, which are the second most distinctive part of an owl, were alleged to be rabbit-like. So then, why did Mr. Neville et al. say an owl was involved, and not some other bird?

Rabbit x Chicken >>

Interestingly, some Renaissance versions of Pliny’s Natural History show the Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) as a kind of rabbit-bird hybrid (right), similar in appearance to the description given of the Menominee tertium quid. These representations were exaggerations of Pliny’s original, correct assertion about this bird, that its name, Lagopus, refers to the fact that it has hair on its feet, making them look like the feet of a hare. However, illustrators of early printed editions of the History threw in the head of the hare as well.

Table of contents >>

Bibliography >>

Biology Dictionary >>

By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).


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