news-160919674-ar-0-ogthcuhbeawi.jpg
This black witch moth on Thomas Craig's sink is the first recorded in Jackson County. Photo courtesy of Thomas Craig

The black witch cometh

EAGLE POINT — Thomas Craig lives in the old caretaker's cottage on a large Rogue River-side ranch where it's not unusual to have a bat or two fly into the house during the evenings, so the latest bat flitting about the kitchen was no surprise.

"Oh, great, another bat in the kitchen," Craig recalls. "When it landed on the sink, I realized this is no bat. It's a moth as big as my hand."

Turns out it was the first recording in Jackson County of North America's largest moth — the massive black witch — up from the Caribbean islands or even Mexico with its 7-inch wingspan and a whole lot of bad juju attributed to its name.

It's a find that could see the 51-year-old Craig lose his hair, die or win the lottery if Haitian lore is to be believed. Heck, it could even be the spirit of the house's one-time owner, Robert Ruhl, the larger-than-life publisher of the Mail Tribune, coming back to check out his old haunts.

Craig, a federal hydrologist, doesn't buy into the good or bad mojo associated with the eighth Ascalapha odorata ever recorded in Oregon.

"This house is kind of spooky enough on its own," Craig says. "The stories it could tell."

He's just glad the black witch posed long enough for a few photos to prove its Aug. 25 appearance here.

"There are a lot of different variations of the story, but I just thought it was neat for it to be so rare and so far out of its range," Craig says.

Entomologists say the black witch's range extends from northern South America across the Caribbean islands, Central America and Mexico, even southern parts of the United States. They are night fliers, can travel great distances and cross open water during their migrations.

Folklore says that if the black witch flies in front of you, it brings a curse from an enemy, according to the website desertusa.com. If it flies over your head, your hair will fall out. If it flies into your home when you are sick, you will die, the lore says.

Some cultures consider it the embodiment of a dead soul, or an omen you will win the lottery if it lands on your door, according to the website.

Along with their odd aura, black witches are known to be great travelers, though they're not generally known to venture this far north.

This one not only chose Oregon, but Craig's residence, which happens to be the caretaker lodge for the 352-acre MacArthur Ranch on the Rogue River upstream of Dodge Bridge, owned by Ruhl's heirs. The Southern Oregon Land Conservancy is in the midst of a $3.5 million fundraising campaign to buy the ranch, recast it as the Rogue River Preserve and keep it in its rare, unblemished state in perpetuity.

"The black witch sure has some crazy folklore," says Kristi Mergenthaler, SOLC's director. "But I don't think it gives our fundraiser any bad luck."

The black witch story was untold until Craig did what Americans do when they find something weird: He posted pictures of his visitor on Facebook, and butterfly expert Linda Kappen turned bug-eyed when she saw Craig's post.

"That was a crazy thing, such a rare moth for Oregon," Kappen says.

Kappen forwarded the pics and info to Corvallis butterfly expert Dana Ross, who confirmed the species and its status as the first one recorded in Jackson County. It's also posted on a moth-o-phile website called Pacific Northwest Moths (http://pnwmoths.biol.wwu.edu).

In the kitchen that night, Craig held the big bug in his palm and felt it was somehow special.

"It was a weird moment, yeah," Craig says. "It was tattered, like it had been on a long journey."

Craig helped the lepidopteran version of the Spruce Goose to the window sill, and away it went.

"Now I'm looking at moths a lot, like they're special," Craig says. "Well, they're all special."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Share This Story