What Is Mothman Really? Possible Mundane Explanations
Could Mothman Sightings Be Explained by Natural Phenomenon or Misidentified Everyday Animals or Objects?
Mothman is a cryptid that first gained notoriety after it was allegedly spotted numerous times in the small town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in the mid-1960s. Mothman is described as a large creature standing over six feet tall, with wings six to ten feet across, menacing red eyes, and a body covered in gray or black feathers or fur. Mothman is often considered a portent of impending tragedy and is most often associated with the tragic collapse of the Silver Bridge across the Ohio River near Point Pleasant, which killed 46 people in 1967. Sightings of the Mothman have waned since the late 1960s, but there have been reports of sightings in every decade since in West Virginia and surrounding states, including Ohio.
While many cryptozoologists, UFOlogists, and people who are interested in the paranormal believe that Mothman is a supernatural entity, or that the sightings can be attributed to other paranormal phenomena, others believe that there are more mundane, every day explanations for these experiences and sightings.
A wildlife biologist, Dr. Robert L. Smith, an associate professor of wildlife biology in West Virginia University’s division of forestry, offered an explanation for the Mothman sightings in an interview that appeared in The Herald Dispatch, a local newspaper, on November 19th, 1966. Dr. Smith believed that sightings of the alleged Mothman were nothing more than sightings of misidentified sandhill cranes.
Dr. Smith told the newspaper: "From all the descriptions I have read about this 'thing' it perfectly matches the sandhill cranes. I definitely believe that's what these people are seeing." The professor went on to describe the bird as standing an average of five feet tall, with gray plumage and a bright red fleshy area around each of its eyes. Sandhill cranes have an average wing spread of about seven feet across. Dr. Smith went on to say: "Somebody who has never seen anything like it before could easily get the impression it is a flying man. Car lights would cause the bare skin to reflect as big red circles around the eyes." He also said that the sound this crane makes could easily be mistaken for the cry of a monster, which he believe could account for the sounds described by eyewitnesses of the Mothman.
Many believers in the Mothman phenomenon aren’t convinced that the creature is a sandhill crane, however. First of all, sandhill cranes are incredibly rare to the area where Mothman was encountered. There have been no official sightings of the bird in West Virginia, though there have been a few unconfirmed reports. In addition, though the birds are powerful flyers, Dr. Smith admitted that they would not be able to reach speeds of 100 mph, as witnesses reported the Mothman flew while pursuing their car.
Witnesses of the Mothman also disagree with Dr. Smith's sandhill crane theory based on the physical features of the creature they witnessed. While the sandhill crane is known for its long neck, those who claim to have encountered the Mothman claim that the creature may not have had a neck at all, certainly not one as long as that of a crane. Witnesses also say that the sandhill crane’s body proportions are completely different from those of the creature they saw. The sandhill crane is much thinner than the alleged Mothman. Witnesses who were shown photographs of the crane insist that the bird looks nothing like the creature they encountered.
Skeptic Joe Nickell, a writer for the Skeptical Inquirer, attributes Mothman sightings to a various species of owls (in addition to misidentified planes and outright pranks/hoaxes). Descriptions of the Mothman, in Nickell’s opinion, more closely match the shape of an owl than a sandhill crane. Furthermore, the “glowing red eyes” that many eyewitnesses report could be the result of flashlights or other bright lights reflecting off the owl’s eyes, resulting in an eyeshine with a red glowing appearance, according to Nickell.
The TNT area, which is located about seven miles north of Point Pleasant and was the location of many alleged Mothman sightings, is surrounded by the McClintic Wildlife Management Area, which serves as a bird sanctuary and is home to numerous types of owls. Because of the creature’s squeaky cry, “funny little face,” and it’s frequent appearance near barns and abandoned buildings, Nickell believes that the most likely candidate for the creature to be the common barn owl. He believes that many eyewitnesses have simply misjudged the size of the creature due to their fear upon witnessing it.
One reader of Nickell’s article regarding the Mothman in the Skeptical Inquirer suggested that the Mothman may be a great horned owl, rather than a common barn owl, due to its greater size.
Further research by Nickell suggested another type of owl as a potential candidate for the true identity of Mothman; the barred owl. Barred owls exhibit stronger eyeshine than either the common barn owl or the great horned owl, making it another likely candidate for the Mothman. According to the wildlife manager at McClintic Wildlife Management Area, David McClung, the barred owl, which closely resembles the barn owl in appearance, is very common to the area. In fact, it is even more common than the common barn owl, and is also a bit larger in size, though it is slightly smaller than the great horned owl.
It is possible that different types of owls, or even other large bird species, could be responsible for the reported sightings of the Mothman. Nickell believes that different sighting incidents may have been caused by different types of owls at different times.
Joe Nickell also offered another non-avian explanation to account for some of the Mothman sightings; misidentified airplanes. Several other theorists have offered potential explanations for the Mothman phenomenon related to airplanes or other aircraft as well.
One aviation-related theory to explain the Mothman sightings claims that the entire Mothman phenomenon was engineered by a local pilot who just wanted to have a little fun scaring the locals, using his plane to conduct the hoax. This theory says that the pilot continuously flew his own private plane back and forth across the Ohio River to feed the Mothman rumors.
Other theorists suggest that the people who report Mothman sightings have actually witnessed some kind of experimental military stealth aircraft. This theory would account for the fact that none of the eyewitness reports mentioned mechanical noises coming from the creature. Skeptics of this explanation point out the unlikelihood of such an aircraft existing in 1966.
Some Mothman skeptics also believe that some of the Mothman sightings can be attributed to simple misidentified car lights in the distance. A pair of tail lights from a car could potentially be mistaken for red glowing eyes, especially late at night by witnesses who had been drinking just before their encounter. This theory does not, however, explain sightings where witnesses saw the creature up close.
Many people who doubt the stories about Mothman believe that the entire thing is simply a hoax. After the hysteria surrounding Mothman following the initial sightings, it isn’t too hard to believe that some people may report sightings that never happened for attention, or that pranksters could have set up fake Mothman encounters to scare other locals.
There are several theories for how these hoaxes and pranks may have been conducted. In addition to the theory about a pilot using his private plane to create Mothman hysteria, another of these theories includes someone wearing a costume jumping out at drivers late at night.
There is also a theory that local construction workers may have made a fake Mothman using a balloon made from a large plastic sheet filled with helium, which they then tied red flashlights to give the appearance of red eyes. The problem with this theory is that Mothman reportedly flew much faster than a helium balloon could travel.
Of course, it is also possible that many of the reported sightings of the Mothman were simply from people looking for attention amid the Mothman media frenzy in the 1960s. It’s possible that we will never know what Mothman really was.
© 2019 Jennifer Wilber