The Myth and Reality of Owls

   Unlike politicians, owls do not need a public-relations staff. Without fanfare, without advertising, without visible effort on their part, owls manage to place near the top of the charts whenever people are asked to list their favorite animals. In fact, owls are right up there with pandas and puppies in popularity. Few other birds can make this claim, just as few other birds are popular as toys (the penguin is one that comes to mind). So great is the owl's appeal that owl collectibles, from banks to bookends, are a sought-after category for collectors around the world. This is surprising, because owls are predatory birds; they kill in order to live. Other birds of prey, raptors such as falcons, hawks and eagles, are not regarded with enthusiasm by everyone, and not even their greatest admirers would call them ideal subjects for stuffed toys. Why are owls so popular? And why has so much folklore, myth and just plain nonsense attached itself to owls? Answering those questions will tell us quite a bit about these nocturnal hunters. It will also tell us quite a bit about ourselves.

   One reason for owls' appeal is their appearance - they look like little people (this, of course, also helps to explain the popularity of penguins, which resemble short, chubby, formally dressed humans). Owls stand upright, in striking contrast to the majority of birds, which have a horizontal stance. Owl eyes are pleasingly large and round and they face forward, just as yours and mine do. These huge eyes are set in a flat, human-like face and are defined by facial disks, circles of short feathers that suggest cheeks. Like people and unlike other birds, owls blink with the upper, not the lower, eyelids. An owl's beak is located just where a human nose would be, and it looks small and harmless. In reality it is large and powerfully hooked, but this fact is disguised by its deeply downcurved shape and by a moustache of bristle feathers that surround it and hide a good portion of its length. These bristle feathers are sensory receptors, giving the owl a way to feel what it is eating, since the far-sighted bird has difficulty seeing objects close up. Many species, such as the Eastern Screech Owl and the Great Horned Owl, wear paired tufts of feathers on top of the head that look just like the ears of a mammal. The owl finishes off its human likeness by clothing itself in extraordinarily soft plumage. Its velvety feathers make it look appealingly rounded and furry, mammal-like rather than bird-like. These soft feathers extend to the talons in most species. The Snowy Owl, which boasts the longest toe feathers of any owl, seems to be wearing furry slippers. Or pretending to be a hobbit. The feathers soften a hard truth: Owls have immensely powerful grasping feet armed with dagger-sharp talons. The feet are highly efficient grasping tools and owls use them and not their beaks to catch prey. The Great Horned Owl, for example, has talons that may extend an inch or more in length, and the species is one of the few birds of prey that can be dangerous to people under certain circumstances. Owls are truly a paradox. They are huggable-looking predators, hunters in the guise of toys.

   Owl eyes are an important part of the bird's mystique. The eyes are round and proportionately huge. The eyes of a Great Horned Owl, for example, are as big as human eyes, yet this species averages around three and one-half pounds in weight. Owl eyes are set in the front of the bird's face, the mark of a predator. This arrangement allows depth of vision, so an owl can see precisely where its prey is. Preyed-upon species have eyes on the sides of the head, the better to see danger from every possible angle (the American Woodcock carries this type of eye placement to an extreme; it has a visual field of 360 degrees). Owls have a visual field of 110 degrees, and about 70 degrees of this is seen by both eyes, which means that owls see objects in three dimensions, just as we do. What they can do that we can't is see in very dim light. Eyes are light-receiving organs, and owl eyes are as large as possible to let in all available starshine and moonlight. There is nothing supernatural about owl eyes. The birds cannot see in total darkness any better than we can. However, total darkness occurs in very few places in nature (caves and deep seas are about the only ones), so owls always have some light to see by, even if that light seems impossibly dim to us. Owls can see at least 35 times better than we can at night, and some sources up the figure to 100 times better. One thing is certain - no flashlight is required.

   This incredible ability to see in what looks to us like complete blackness is in large part responsible for owls' reputation as mysterious, eerie creatures, possessors of supernatural powers. Down through the millennia many cultures have credited owls with magical powers. Often owls were associated with the dead, since the dead were mysterious as well. Several different groups envisioned owls as guiding the soul to its journey after death. The Ojibwa Indians of the Great Lakes region thought the dead had to cross an owl bridge when they left the earth and their former lives behind. The Salish Indians of the Northwest Coast explained that "the owl is below at night when it is daylight in the graves." At night, in other words, when everything was the reverse of normal and the dead walked, that was the time of the owl.

   The ancient Hebrews, excellent observers of nature, saw owls as symbols not just of death but, by extension, of destruction. This image is enhanced by the fact that some owl species (like the Common Barn Owl) will nest or roost in abandoned buildings. In the Old Testament the overthrow of Babylon was prophesied in Isaiah 14:20-21 this way: "It shall never be inhabited...but wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there." A later chapter in the same book paints another, equally vivid, scene of ruin and desolation.

   The cormorant and the bittern shall possess it; the owl also and the raven shall dwell in it: and he shall stretch out upon it the line of confusion, and the stones of emptiness....
   And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof: and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls.
   The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest.
   There shall the great owl make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow: there shall the vultures also be gathered, every one with her mate.

Isaiah 34: 11-15

   Owls are listed with the "unclean" birds in Leviticus. This is not because the Israelites viewed owls as particularly loathsome, but rather because owls, like the diurnal (active by day) birds of prey, are meat-eaters. According to Hebrew standards, that made them inappropriate for human consumption. So "the little owl," "the great owl," the osprey, the eagle, "and the hawk after his kind "were not to be regarded as food; they were an "abomination."

   In reality, owls developed phenomenal powers of vision not to give generations of human beings the willies, but in order to exploit an ecological niche. Owls evolved to hunt rodents, and the majority of rodent species are active at night. Other birds of prey that might compete with owls for available rodent prey are diurnal hunters. So owls have become specialists at nocturnal hunting, searching out a meal while the competition slumbers. Good nighttime vision certainly helps owls locate prey. But they have another sense that is, if anything, even more remarkable than their vision - their hearing.

   Human ears are located on the sides of the head. The ear opening is small and it is surrounded by an external projection called the pinna, the part we often refer to as the ear. The pinna aids us in the collection of sound waves; when we can't hear something clearly, we increase the pinna's size by cupping our hand around it. Owls also have ear openings on the sides of the head, but there the resemblance to human ears ends. Owl ear openings, located just behind the eyes, are semicircular in shape. And they are huge - in many species they extend from the top of the bird's skull almost to the lower jaw. These enormous openings, which look somewhat like a knife slash that has opened up the bird's skull on either side, hide under the owl's head feathers. The clue to their location is not the presence of pinnae, as it is on most mammals. A bird doesn't need a projecting part that will cause drag when it is in flight. The whereabouts of owl ear openings can be pinpointed by the rim of the facial disks, the feathered areas around the eyes that help to give owl features a human aspect. The facial disks of an owl are set off, in most species, by a rim of different-colored, square-edged feathers. This line of demarcation marks the ear openings. Push back that line of feathers and you have found the owl's ears. The tufts of feathers that many species bear on top of the head have nothing to do with the bird's hearing. These bunches of feathers communicate information about mood, species and individual identity to other owls. They also help disguise the bird when it is perched by elongating it and blending it into its tree-branch background.

   As you might expect, the enormous ear openings of owls give the birds superb hearing, auditory acuity many times better than our own. In fact, studies on the Common Barn Owl have shown that if the birds must hunt in complete darkness (under artificial, laboratory conditions), they can still home in on mouse prey using their sense of hearing alone. The ears of owls are also equipped to pick up high-frequency sounds, sounds that are entirely outside our hearing range. Rodents squeak at high frequencies, so this ability is one more weapon in the owl arsenal against rodents. The better mousetrap has already been invented, and the owl is it. It is only recently that we have begun to comprehend the extraordinary sharpness of owls' senses. In times gone by the birds' seemingly miraculous ability to hunt in conditions where people would be helpless made them appear mysterious. Since we tend to fear the mysterious, we have often perceived owls as birds of ill omen, as symbols of doom. To Chaucer the owl was "the prophete of wo and myschaunce." Shakespeare was familiar with the writings of the Roman author Pliny the Elder, who wrote in his Natural History that:"The scritch-owle betokeneth always some heavy news, and is most execrable and accursed in the presaging of public affairs...And, therefore, if he be seen either within cities or otherwise abroad in any place, it is not for good, but prognosticates some fearful misfortune." Shakespeare recognized a useful dramatic device when he saw one and he mined this prognosticator-of-dire-misfortune idea for all it was worth. In Julius Caesar, just before Caesar's assassination, "the bird of night" is observed "hooting and shrieking" in the marketplace "even at noonday." The only thing worse than glimpsing an owl was seeing it at an unnatural time - in daylight.

   Just as bad as seeing an owl was hearing it. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is on edge, for her husband has gone to murder the king. Suddenly she hears a terrifying sound. Is the king dead, then? But no, she says, "it was the owl that shriek'd / The fatal bellman which gives the stern'st goodnight." When evil was afoot, so too were owls. Perhaps they brought the evil. The owl's status as an ill-omened bird is explicitly stated in Henry VI, Part III: "The owl shrieked at thy birth, an evil sign."

   This idea of owls either announcing or actively bringing bad luck is so firmly established in the human psyche that modern-day poets still use it as a dramatic device. "Town Owl" by Laurie Lee shows this clearly:

When quartered moons pale in the sky,
and neons flow along the dark
like deadly nightshade on a briar;
Above the muffled traffic then
I hear the owl, and at his note
I shudder in my private chair.
For like an augur he has come
to roost among our crumbling walls,
his blooded talons sheathed in fur.

And where the silk-shoed lovers ran
with dust of diamonds in their hair,
he opens now his silent wing,
And, like a stroke of doom, drops down
and swoops across the empty hall,
and plucks a quick mouse off the stair....

   The eyes that give owls such wonderful vision were frequently used in folk medicine, along with other parts of the bird. The theory behind the old Doctrine of Signatures was that the outward appearance of an object signaled its special properties (as for magic or healing), and that there was a relationship between the outward qualities of a medicinal object and the diseases against which it was effective. Hence owl eyes, which enabled the bird to see in the dark, were considered effective medicine for human eye problems. Owl eggs were used in folk remedies for a variety of ills, since they were viewed as a kind of concentrate of owl. They were thought to be efficacious against whooping cough; after all, couldn't owls whoop and hoot all night long without showing signs of distress? Owl eggs were also used in the treatment of epilepsy and drunkenness (and if you want to know the connection between any part of an owl and drunkenness I'm afraid I can't enlighten you).

    Cherokee Indians washed their children's eyes with water in which owl feathers had been steeped in order to give them night vision. The feathers were also used in the treatment of insomnia. A bit of soft owl plumage would be placed under the sufferer's pillow and peaceful slumber, as light as the bird's feathers, was thought to result. And since the ill-omened owl was perceived as carrying evil within its very body, pieces of that body were used in various spells and charms. Shakespeare knew of this idea too (the man didn't miss a trick), so the witches' brew in Macbeth contains: "Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing, / For a charm of powerful trouble, / Like a hell-broth boil and bubble."

   Another reason owls were seen as harbingers of doom was their uncanny range of noises. Owl family groups may stay together for an extended period and family members do a lot of talking among themselves, using a wide variety of shrieks, hoots, moans, rasps and barks. Courtship results in a great deal of vocalization between the pair, and territorial claims and counterclaims prompt quite a bit of discussion. So the owl nesting season can be a noisy one and the birds are capable of producing sounds that don't seem remotely bird-like. A Great Horned Owl can bark like a dog, meow like a cat or scream like a person. Even when it uses an owlish hoot that hoot has a great deal of variety, and can signal a number of things. Barred Owls are perhaps the most vocal of North American owls and calls range from their trademark eight-beat series of hoots to a host of gutteral shrieks, chuckles, mutters and howls. The Common Barn Owl is not far behind in the variety of sounds it can produce. Many owl noises are distinctly unearthly in quality and can be frightening if heard at close range, particularly when the hearer doesn't know an owl is the source of the cry. Many ghost stories undoubtedly originated with the weird sounds produced by owls. Even when one knows that a given noise comes from an owl, it can still jangle the nerves like the sound of human sobbing. The author of the Old Testament book of Micah conjures up this feeling when he writes: "Therefore, I will wail and howl...I will make a wailing like the dragons, and mourning as the owls." Shakespeare, of course, understood the effect owl noises can have on human nerve endings, and he uses it to create an ominous atmosphere of dread and doom in several of his plays. Puck sets the stage in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V, Scene II: "Now the wasted brands do glow, / Whilst the screech owl, screeching loud, / Puts the wretch that lies in woe / In remembrance of a shroud." Bolingbroke in Henry VI, Part II, Act I, Scene IV, expresses an even more dreadful idea, the thought that human evil works hand-in-hand with the powers of darkness:

...wizards know their times;
Deep night, dark night, the silent of the night,
The time of night when Troy was set on fire,
The time when screech owls cry, and ban-dogs howl,
And spirits walk, and ghosts break up their graves,
That time best fits the work we have in hand.

   No wonder that Arabs at one time thought that owls were the souls of people who died unavenged. Blood vengence was what the owls were calling for, and what they would continue to call for, until the evil deed was washed away in blood. The dead were referred to as hama (''skull'') and their voices were sada ("echo"). Both names came to be applied to owls. Even serious-minded scientists are not immune to the eerie effect of owl calls. The tiny Boreal Owl bears the scientific name Aegolius funereus. The species name funereus is Latin for "funereal," probably because of the bird's tolling, churchbell-like call.

   (If I may digress from all this doom and gloom for a moment, I'd like to interject something about the sound screech owls make. Screech owls are mentioned in several of the passages quoted above and the reader is left with the clear impression that screech owls must make pretty nasty noises. Well, I hate to mess around with tradition, but I don't believe that the Eastern Screech Owl, at any rate, really screeches. This species makes a variety of noises, but most are quite pleasant, even melodic. A mated pair will warble back and forth and the effect is quite charming. The two sexes sing in different pitches - the male's voice is lower - and together they produce a lovely, slightly eerie, woodland concert.)

   The sound that owls make is rendered even more eerie by the fact that it is very difficult, disconcertingly so, to figure out where the sound is coming from. I can be looking directly at my vocalizing Eastern Screech Owls, standing just a few feet away, and still swear that the sound is coming from a different part of the yard. Owl calls have a strange, ventriloquial quality that protects the caller.

   Still another reason owls have a reputation for eeriness is their unique ability to fly virtually soundlessly, "God's silent searching flight." All feathers, whether they come from an owl, a bluebird or an ostrich, are made of keratin. Keratin is the fibrous structural protein of fingernails, horns, hoofs, hair and wool, in addition to feathers. Keratin is tough, but its texture can be soft or hard, depending upon its internal structure. Owl feathers, unlike all other bird of prey feathers, are soft. A glance at the surface of an owl feather reveals the reason - it is covered with what looks like fur or velvet. This velvety surface dampens sound and is in large part responsible for owls' uncannily noiseless flight. Also contributing to quiet flight are wings that are very large and broad for the birds' size. The front edge of the first wing feather in an owl's wing is a stiff fringe, which also helps to dampen sound. The result is a bird that has an uncanny way of suddenly appearing and then disappearing without a sound. Native Americans tied owl feathers to weapons and shields in the belief that this would give them the power to move about noiselessly. Arrows were fletched with owl feathers for silent flight.

   Those soft owl feathers are somberly colored in creams, grays, browns and black. In his poem "My Grandpa" Ted Hughes sums up owls' limited color range:

Owls, owls, nothing but owls,
The most fantastical of fowls:
White owls from the Arctic, black owls from the Tropic.
Some are far-sighted, others myopic.

(Of course Hughes is mistaken about owls' myopia, but the man is a poet, not a scientist.).Owls are camouflaged not to enable them to stalk their prey undetected, but to protect them from harassment from other birds. Songbirds will gang up on owls instinctively, a behavior known as mobbing. As soon as the nocturnal predator is spotted, area songbirds begin to gather, flying around the owl and calling constantly. The aim is not to attack, although some bold individuals sometimes do, but to alert other birds in the area to potential danger. It may also be an attempt to drive the owl away; the fact is that after a time the harried predator will often fly away, looking for quieter surroundings. Aristotle noticed this behavior centuries ago, and it has been turned into allegories ever since. Aristotle called mobbing "astonishing," and notes: "...during the day other birds fly round the owl, which is called astonishing it, and as they fly around, pluck off its tail feathers. For this reason fowlers use it in hunting for all kinds of birds."

   Leonardo de Vinci saw the natural enmity between owls and songbirds as a living illustration on how we must be careful to identify our real enemies:

The thrushes were overjoyed on seeing a
man catch the owl and take away her freedom
by binding her feet with strong bonds. But then
by means of bird lime the owl was the cause of
the thrushes losing not only their liberty but
even their lives. This is said of those states
which rejoice at seeing their rulers lose their
liberty, whereafter they lose hope and remain
bound in the powers of their enemy, losing
their liberty and often their lives.

Owls have loomed even larger than life for so many centuries because their natural characteristics have ben turned into morals and cautionary tales in legend and folklore.

   And last we come to that charming old idea about the great wisdom possessed by owls. Charming it is, true it is not. Owls are the highly efficient predators they are not because their intelligence is particularly well developed, but because their senses are so keen. Indeed, their remarkable senses of vision and hearing may have prevented owls from developing a high degree of intelligence; they can hunt quite successfully without it. Birds that do seem to exhibit a high degree of intelligence, birds such as crows and parrots, are social, and they need to be reasonably bright to function well in a group. Owls almost never associate with other owls outside of the family group, so they don't need complex social skills. Then where did the idea that owls are the epitome of wisdom come from? Much of this idea can be attributed to owls' appearance and behavior. We have said that owls look like little people; aren't people wise? Owls must be short and stubby philosophers, clothed in a scholar's robe of feathers. Owls also seem to be dignified birds who tend to sit quietly, and they do give the impression of being deep in thought. What they are actually doing, impressions aside, is sitting still so they'll blend in with their surroundings and escape detection. Owls have marvelous, tree-colored feathers that camouflage them perfectly - as long as they don't move. People, of course, have put their own interpretation on this behavior, as in this anonymous poem:

A wise old owl sat in an oak,
The more he saw the less he spoke,
The less he spoke the more he heard,
Why can't we all be like that wise old bird.

   In Navaho Indian legend Nayenezgani, the creator, made the first owl, telling it: "...in days to come men will listen to your voice to know what will be their future." In tales from a wide variety of cultures, owls are judges, sages, gurus and prophets. So firmly entrenched is the association of owls with wisdom that the birds are used in modern-day advertising to project this image. And yet it's still an image, albeit an appealing one. In fact, very little about owls' unnatural, people-created history squares with their natural history. For millennia people have been twisting and turning the facts of owls' existence to suit their own needs, fears and desires. None of this has touched the real ones, the masters of darkness, who continue their ancient quest for prey and leave the philosophizing to us.

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