Andrea here, musing on owls today. Perhaps it’s because the shortest day of the years is close, and owls are nocturnal—a creature of the night. I’ve always found them a fascinating bird, not only in the wild, where I find their plaintive hoots alluring (though they usually prove elusive from sight.) I also love their depictions in art, where their mystery and aloofness seem to inspire fascinating visuals, from ancient times to the present day.
Since ancient times, owls have been a symbol of wisdom and vigilance. I first became really aware of that when I was in college because the owl appears in so many decorative stone carvings on the buildings around campus. From serious to silly, owls are tucked away in nooks and crannies, adorn the walls or peer down from rooftops. It was great fun discovering them.
I’ve also enjoyed seeing their stature in ancient Greek art. The owl is the symbol of Athena, the goddess of Wisdom (as well as War, Weaving and other crafts) It was said in ancient lore that the owl sat behind Athena so she could see the entire Truth. Its images appears in sacred sculptures, coins and mosaics and many other artforms throughout the city of Athens and Greece.
It’s interesting to think about why. The eyes are usually the focus of any artist representation and appear oversized . . . as if they can see right into your innermost thoughts. (The ancient Greeks believed that owls had an inner light that allowed them to see in the dark.) They are also always depicted as solitary creatures—one never sees a flock of owls in art. They are seen as inscrutable, always watching, watching . . .
Maybe that’s why throughout history owls have also been seen as a bad omen. Again, that they are solitary creatures of the night whose flight tends to be eerily silent may contribute to their being seen as a harbinger of darkness by many different cultures around the world, including indigenous American peoples.
This dichotomy prompted me to take a look at The International Owl Center website to look at the various myths and legends surrounding owls, and I learned a number of interesting things! Apparently one myth is that because owls have such extraordinary eyesight, that if one eats owl eggs it will improve you eyesight. (False!) Another is that owls are messengers of witches. (Regardless of of the owls in Harry Potter, owls do not like contact with humans, and they are very difficult to train, as they are very stubborn!)
Now here are some truths! There are 19-20 species of owls in North America, and between 230-250 species of owls throughout the world. Owls can only move their eyes about 1 degree because of their large size and the way their eye sockets work. So owls have to move their heads. (Some owls can basically turn their head 360 degree.) And lastly on the interesting facts—did you know that in the U. S. it is illegal to possess an owl feather, even if you picked it up on a walk? That’s because The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects all birds native to North America, including their feathers, eggs and nests. It’s to prevent people from killing them for their feathers.
I was recently reminded of my interest in owls because of Instagram. Now, I’m not a social media fan and stay off it as much as I can, mostly using it to post book news. However Instagram appeals to me because I’m a very visual person and enjoy the images. Lately, a number of wildlife videos have been popping up in my feed, and I’ve loved watching the amazing images of owls. They really are majestic birds, so self-reliant and self -assured. When I was in England, I was lucky enough to an expert in raptors give a demonstration of falcons and owls in flight. It was fabulous!
What about you? Are you intrigued by owls? Do you have a different favorite bird that captures your fancy?