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.
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.
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.
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....
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."
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
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:
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).
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:
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:
(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:
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:
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.