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The problem with talking about owls is that there are so many kinds. When I say “owl”, do you think of a dozy, sweet-faced barn owl or the uncompromising burrowing owl?

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 800px-Athene_cunicularia_20110503_05Do you think of the orange eyes of the eagle owl, the tufted ears of the great horned owl, or the feathered feet of the snowy? And so on, across every continent except Antarctica: 200 or so species, ranging in size from the tiny elf owl to the enormous and splendidly-named Blakiston’s fish owl. Then there are the owls of the internet. Do you prefer yours hungover or superb?

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(Blakiston’s fish owl, devourer of pike, catfish and salmon)

For all their superficial differences, it’s easy to recognise an owl. Almost all species have wide faces, small beaks and large eyes. When you see a picture of a bird and identify it as an owl, even if you don’t know what kind, these are the features you’re responding to. Beyond this, all owls fall into two families: barn owls (16 species, heart-shaped faces, see picture above) and typical owls (all the rest).

The owl’s big, flat face and big, round eyes make it look more human than any other bird. In his excellent book Owl (Reaktion), Desmond Morris suggests that these human-ish features are the reason the owl has such cultural clout – and why, in self-congratulatory mode, we think of owls as wise. In fact, owls are not particularly clever. They do what they do (hearing, seeing, flying, killing) very well indeed but, unlike crows and parrots, they are not great at adapting their behaviour to new situations – and adaptive capacity is one of the things we look for when we measure the intelligence of a species.

Even when you know this, it’s hard to stare into the expanded pupils of a barred owl, say, and not see there a wisdom that goes beyond mere intelligence.

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In Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne plays on the clever-stupid owl conundrum. His Owl seems wise, with his long words and lofty manner (“’My dear Pooh,’ said Owl in his superior way, ‘don’t you know what an ambush is?’”). When it comes down to it, though, Owl can’t even spell his own name, muddling up the letters and calling himself “Wol”.

The association of owls with wisdom dates back at least to the 6th century BC, and the foundation of Athenian democracy. Athens is named for Athena, goddess of wisdom, and the owl was her sacred bird. Athena’s traditional epithet is glaukopis, usually translated as “bright-eyed” – but literally, “owl-eyed”. For 500 years, Athenian coins had owls on one side and Athena on the other.

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Not all times and places have been so owl-positive. Owls have a long association with bad luck, death and dark magic. In ancient China, owls were seen as violent and evil. A Malaysian superstition has owls as baby-eaters. In Christian tradition, owls represent evil and sometimes the devil itself. Well into the 19th century, owls were a sign of sorcery – a belief that persists today in diluted, friendlier form (think of Hedwig, Errol and co. in Harry Potter).

Wise owl/wicked owl: what’s striking is how many cultures manage to hold these views concurrently – as if, in its humanness, we can’t help investing the owl with the extremes of human goodness and badness. The Romans used the owl for the goddess Minerva, their equivalent of Athena, but they also regarded it as a symbol of death and an omen of ill-fortune. The Moche culture of ancient Peru imagined the owl both as wise healer and as bloodthirsty warrior.

Owls’ human quality makes them enduringly popular with artists, and they appear in art the world over, from the owl-shaped vessels of ancient China to Native American totem poles and the colorful paintings of Inuit artists. The earliest owl image we have was carved on the roof of a French cave 30,000 years ago. Experts suggest that it is a great horned owl. Compare and contrast:

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Perhaps the most famous owl painting is a small watercolour by German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). I defy you to have seen a more adorable owl in life or art:

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(The Little Owl by Albrecht Dürer, 1508)

More recently, Picasso drew, painted and sculpted owls upon owls, seeing in the creature’s large, staring eyes an echo of his own. He also kept a pet owl, reportedly a very grumpy creature, and liked to pose for photos alongside owl pet and owl art.

Caring for a pet owl is not easy, but Picasso is not the only famous person to have done so. In 1850, British nurse Florence Nightingale rescued a baby owl that had fallen out of a tree in Athens. She named her Athena, brought her back to England and trained and tended to her, carrying out ward rounds with the owl tucked in her apron pocket.

This story does not have a happy ending. In 1855, Nightingale was preparing to leave Britain and serve in the Crimean War. She gave Athena to her family, who shut the bird in the attic, assuming she would teach herself to catch mice. Athena was so used to having Nightingale meet her every demand that she starved to death. The family discovered the body before Nightingale had left the country, and she postponed her departure so that Athena could be stuffed and preserved. Today she lives in the Florence Nightingale Museum in London:

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© Florence Nightingale Museum

But don’t let the domesticated Athena or a pair of human-like eyes convince you that owls are anything other than wild and fierce. We see them all the time in paintings and memes, stuffed in museums and winging their way across Etsy, but it’s rare to see one in the wild – not least because almost all owl species are nocturnal. If you’re lucky, you will hear them hoot (or bark, screech, whistle or whirr – owls have a wider vocal range than popular culture would have us believe). And when you hear an owl twit-twoo, you are actually hearing two owls, twoo responding to twit, so quickly that it sounds like one call.

Twit-twooing aside, owls are solitary birds. When they’re not mating or raising their young, they live alone. But though owls are shy with each other and shy with humans, they’re also birds of prey: efficient killers with highly developed sight and hearing. They have good long-distance and night vision, which allows them to see prey on the ground as they fly overhead. And an owl can rotate its head through about 270°, which allows it to look directly behind itself without moving its body, thereby making less noise and being less likely to alert prey to its presence.

Useful though this is, the owl’s eyes are actually less important for hunting than its ears. The owl species that hear the best are those that are strictly nocturnal – they don’t hunt until it is truly dark – and many of these have one ear slightly higher than the other. This enables them to identify the exact location of their prey: the sound of a mouse scurrying in leaves might hit an owl’s left ear one as little as one 30 millionth of a second before it hits the right, and the owl will use this difference to work out where the mouse is.

The third weapon in the owl’s night-hunting armoury is its silent flight. The flapping of a bird’s wings is one of the loveliest sounds on earth, but you will never hear an owl flap. Owl feathers, unlike those of most birds, have fringed edges and a velvety surface, which slows the movement of air around them to produce less noise – with the result that prey is oblivious to the fact that it is prey until it’s too late.

Owls swallow their prey whole, and the indigestible parts get compacted into a large pellet, which the owl then coughs up. This is extremely useful for students of owls, who can collect and dissect the pellets, separating out the bones to discover what the owl has been eating.

Pelotes_réjection_Asio_Otus(dissected pellet from a long-eared owl)

Most owls eat rodents, though smaller owls eat insects and bigger ones can handle dogs, foxes, other owls and small deer.

If artists paint or draw the owl because of its similarity to humans, poets tend to emphasise owl’s separateness – the wildness and inscrutability of a solitary hunter. In Lorine Niedecker’s short poem “A monster owl”, the owl is a riddle we don’t know how to ask, let alone solve.

A monster owl

out on the fence

flew away. What

is it the sign

of? The sign of

an owl.

Scottish poet George Macbeth is slightly more forthcoming in “Owl”, but there are still more questions than answers.

Owl

 

is my favourite. Who flies

like a nothing through the night,

who-whoing. Is a feather

duster in leafy corners ring-a-rosying

boles of mice. Twice

 

you hear him call. Who

is he looking for?

The poem ends with a blurring between owl and man that renders both unknowable: “Owl breaks/ like the day. Am an owl, am an owl.”

If poems are too short to provide you with all the owl you desire, I recommend Alan Garner’s young adult novel The Owl Service (1967). It’s a marvellously creepy reworking of the Welsh legend of Blodeuwedd, in which a mythical woman made from flowers and oak is turned into an owl as punishment for cheating on her husband and trying to kill him. In Garner’s version, three unhappy, unpleasant teenagers bring the legend back to life when they find an owl-patterned set of dinner plates in the attic. While you’re reading The Owl Service, perhaps you could listen to this short owl playlist, which includes a band named after the book:

“Always it is owls. Always they must destroy us,” says Garner’s cryptically prophetic Welshman. This sentiment is a little bleak for my liking. I take my owl motto from Twin Peaks: “The owls are not what they seem”. Frankly, I never heard a truer word spoken.


All photos Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise specified.

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