If there is one group of birds that seems to inspire the most wonder in people, it would be owls. They feature in more books, artworks, icons, signs and symbols than just about any other group of species – and their legend lurks deep in the recesses of the human imagination. In his book, simply entitled Owl, (from an excellent series of similarly named, readable volumes about various animals, published by Reaktion), Desmond Morris’ simple theory for the owl’s recurrence is that it is the ‘human bird’. Those big, dark, staring, forward-facing eyes, in a large round head, suggest a human face, and so we naturally ascribe special power to the bird – whether sheer intelligence, or wisdom, or a kind of sacred connection to human destiny. If you want to know about the owl of legend, it’s all in the eyes. And perhaps in the compelling nature of that easy-to-draw overall structure. Owls are instantly recognisable.
The ancient Egyptians understood that it was their eyes which granted owls extraordinary power. Almost all creatures displayed in hieroglyphics, human or otherwise, are depicted in profile, looking straight ahead. But the owl’s head is turned sideways, fixing the observer in its unblinking gaze. As if the owl alone is aware of being observed and, looking back, turns the tables – the unwary observer is no match for its unseemly vitality, and pierced to the very soul melts into nothing but a stone image itself. The owl triumphs. Terrifying stuff, so perhaps it is no wonder that owls have often been thought of as bad omens, their portentous presence near your house a sure sign of impending doom. The assortment of hoots, shrieks, screams, barks and whistles which are the closest things they have to songs, casting fear wide through the primeval night, hardly help.
Slightly less fearsomely, that human head ascribes the owl a place as the very model of wisdom and reason. The classic being the inhabitants of Athens, who long ago had such regard for the owl’s learning that they associated it with the very goddess of wisdom herself, Athena. This is the owl-legend that most persists in more modern times, if less religiously – I enjoy this Victorian rhyme that Morris relates from an 1875 issue of Punch magazine:
“There was an owl lived in an oak,
The more he heard the less he spoke,
The less he spoke the more he heard –
O, if men were all like that wise bird. ”
In the 1920s A. A. Milne took the wise owl and rendered it forever fluffy, as the most learned inhabitant of Hundred Acre Wood, though at least the original illustrations show something like a real bird, in contrast to the cheerful Disney-fied version. And perhaps, in giving his owl only limited powers of spelling, he poked a bit of gentle fun at his perceived wisdom – suggesting an assumed authority rather than real brain power.
But how do the ways we have borrowed, recreated, and distorted the owl image relate to the reality of the beast? As always, you can make the Dawkins-pleasing case that biological fact is at least as interesting as cultural fiction. Owls’ genes versus owl memes, maybe. One hardly need construct legends around the ghostly form of the barn owl hunting along a grassy verge, beloved by humans and presumably feared by nocturnal roving rodents. Or the diminutive 180 grams of malice we know somewhat unfairly as ‘little’ owl, model for representations of Athena. The mightiest of them all, the European eagle owl, is on a one-species mission to prove the family’s reputation for ferocity – prey items found in the nest of this bird of nearly two-metre wingspan range from the bizarre (coot) to the alarming (buzzard, fox, ibex, golden eagle!).
Like last week’s dippers, owls too have many a fascinating adaptation to their niche, shared by the majority of the 200 or so known species. So as to have some room in their head left for a brain, those enormous eyes are in fact tubular, not round. That’s also why they can turn their heads so far, since you can’t move a tubular eye in its socket. That beautiful facial disk of fine feathers can, by way of delicate musculature, be reshaped to channel the slightest noise from a prey item into their powerful ears. And when I say powerful, I mean often 30 times as good as yours or mine.
Fascinating as these real birds of flesh, bone, blood and feather are, I could, as I did last week, write any number of posts about biologically curious birds. As contradictory, frustrating, and sometimes downright wrong as it can be, the cultural construct we call ‘owl’ remains potent, and in a very real sense alive. True enough, it gives rise to problems – owls have been and sometimes still are killed, as well as worshipped, for no scientifically good reason. But who could say that our lives are not enriched by allowing in a little mystery, a little wonder; as Desmond Morris puts it in his book, ‘indulging in a little romantic make-believe.’ Thus I give you this week’s considered bird, my species of the week – ‘owl’.