Hoot, Hoot—Musings on Owls

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?

27 thoughts on “Hoot, Hoot—Musings on Owls”

  1. I love owls too, Andrea, they are fascinating birds! We have several different species in our garden and I hear them at night, calling out to each other. And the males and females sometimes have different ‘hoots’ so you can tell which is which. We don’t often see them, but very occasionally we’ll come across one sitting on a branch in the dark – very special!

    Reply
    • So glad to hear you like owls, too, Christina! Lucky you that you see them occasionally. I very rarely get that treat where I live. I hear them, but they are VERY good at staying hidden.

      Reply
  2. Fun post, Andrea Love the pictures. I, also, am fascinated by owls. Unfortunately there are none in my immediate area. I would like to recommend a book, “What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds”, by Jennifer Ackerman.
    It is full of amazing, fun facts. So much information that I could read only small segments at a time, as I needed time to digest what I had just learned. I would be surprised if a reader does not become enamored of owls after reading this book.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the recommendation, Alison. That sounds fascinating.

      I read a book called “Owls of the Eastern Ice, on the Blakestan’s Fish Owl—the largest owl, in the world (they live mostly in the wilds of eastern Russia) and it was wonderful! I highly recommend it.

      Reply
    • It certainly is a fantastic book, Alison! I bought mine back in July when it was first published, and am more than happy to sit with it on rainy days and re-read to my heart’s content.

      About a week ago while browsing Amazon, I discovered that there are a number of books now bearing the title ‘Summary of What An Owl Knows….” and workbooks for the book as well!

      Reply
  3. I’ve been interested an intrigued lately about how owls are represented as reading books and guardians of libraries in fantasy children’s stories, like the owl in Winnie the Pooh. Did you find anything about that in your research? Other than the obvious myth of owls being wise?

    Reply
    • Tai, I did not find any specific thoughts on the connection between owls and library.reading (that intrigues me too) but I assume it has to do with their connection to wisdom.

      Reply
  4. I love owls too but would probably be a little frightened if I actually saw one while out walking at night. I never really have the urge to have a statue or picture of one around my house but I do have some fairy art with the companion owl in the picture. On the whole, I don’t like birds. I blame Alfred Hitchcock!

    Reply
    • Ha, ha, Jeanne. I think the Hitchcock movie did a lot to tscare people about birds.!

      I love images of owls and would love to have a little sculpture like one of the ones shown in the blog.

      Reply
  5. How interesting, Andrea! I’ve always thought owls were pretty cool without thinking much about them, but you’ve found some really good tidbits. Maybe they’re considered wise because they’re always asking “Who?”, which is the mark of a philosopher!

    Reply
    • Ha, ha, Mary Jo! Good point.
      I’ve always found them fascinating, and love the connection to Athena, goddess of wisdom. I would love to have an ancient Greek coin with an image of an owl.

      Reply
  6. Hi Andrea, thank you for this post about one of my favorite birds. The following is an update of an owl in Manhattan:

    “Nov 24, 2023 – Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped the Central Park Zoo back in February, has been living in Central Park until two weeks ago when he suddenly left, heading more than 6 miles south to the East Village and Lower East Side neighborhoods.”

    I remember reading about this, and I am intrigued as to the whereabouts of Flaco now. He certainly has enough food with other critters in Central Park and beyond.

    Reply
    • Oh, yes, I’ve read about Flaco. And there was that other wonderful owl in Central Park—I forget her name—that had a cult following, and was sadly killed in a night collistion with a park vehicle. To me they are just really cool birds.

      Reply
  7. This is a really interesting post Andrea as I too love owls. There’s something so appealing about them. I have a few statues of them around the house.

    Reply
  8. I love winter birding. It’s easier to see owls camouflaged in their environment. I love finding a quiet place at twilight and waiting to see them come out and hunt. Barred owls are my favorite owls. I hear their calls as I settle into sleep. Their screams during mating season are unsettling.

    Reply
    • Oh, lucky you, Pamela. I have never been able to see them hunt!

      I can imagine that mating cries might be a spooky, but I love their nromal hoots, especially at twilight.

      Reply
  9. I used to find owls neat along with most other large birds. Those incredible flight patterns of turns and dives. When I moved to my current home, out on the prairies, I found that because my house is the tallest “stand” around, owls LOVE to sit on it and literally whoot all night! Drives my bananas, especially in the nights when it woke the sleeping babies!

    Reply
    • Oh, wow, that’s very cool—though I can see why it might not feel that way to you. Not sure I would to hear the hoots all night long either.

      I’m a big fan of raptors in general.

      Reply
  10. What a wonderful post, Andrea, so thank you! The college my daughter attended had the owl as its mascot, so I have become particularly attuned to seeing representations of owls everywhere. (In my family, we call it owldar.) I often send pictures of my findings to my daughter for her to enjoy.

    I’ll share a picture of some bookmarks I made as one happens to include some owl pictures. (The bookmark is for an imaginary book; I made it for a friend who loves the New Yorker magazine.)

    https://forums.welltrainedmind.com/topic/729985-october-craft-thread/?do=findComment&comment=9503815

    Reply
    • So glad you enjoyed the post, Kareni. And how cool that your daughter’s college has an owl as its mascot!

      The bookmarks are wonderful! Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  11. I love owls as well. An interesting tidbit is that you need to go “owling” when you do a CBC (Christmas Bird Count). A friend of mine learned how to make the Eastern Screech Owl call which is a whinny sound. So we’d go to the designated spots during the morning owling time and he’d call. After an hour and a half your head would be stuffed with owl calls!

    The goal was to get other screech owls to respond as well as Barred and Great Horned owls so they could be counted.

    Theoretically we should have screech owls here but mostly all I hear are Great Horned and Barred. Sometimes they are very close, other times very far away. I love hearing them “duet” where the calls cross over.

    Barred owls have quite a few different calls – one of them I call the monkey call where it sounds like a monkey having a show down.. Another call sounds like something is being killed. Usually you just hear “hoo hoo hoo cooks for you all”.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for sharing this, Vicki! I definitely need to go owling with some bird people. I would LOVE to see a great horned owl

      How fascinating about the different sound (though I can do with the “murder” call!)

      Reply
  12. I kind of like the owl that’s out there hooting when I wake up in the wee small hours of the night, but they can be scary creatures. One attacked my grandson one day while he was out on a hike. He must have come too close to a nest, or some such, because he’s more than six feet tall and unlikely to mistaken for a mouse.

    Reply
    • OMG, that’s a very scary story, Lil! Owls are predators, so one does have to be mindful of that. But still. I admre them . . .but from a distance!

      Reply

Leave a Comment