Whoo Are You? The Lore and Lure of Owls

Photo: Ross Feldner

Some people love owls and others fear them. But one thing is certain, owls occupy a unique space in the human psyche.

We identify with owls unlike other birds partly because they are the only bird with eyes that face forward like ours. They are hunters belonging to the raptor family, the same family of birds as hawks, eagles, kites, vultures and falcons. Unlike other raptors, owl generally hunt at night using their powerful talons to catch and kill prey. Many owl species have feathered feet which protect them from cold weather. These feathers help sense contact when seizing prey, and protect against getting bitten.

Owls’ feet have four toes. During flight, and often while perching, three toes face forward, and one backward. When perched, or holding prey, the outer front toe on each foot can swivel to face the rear using a unique flexible joint. Owls can rotate their heads up to 270 degrees, although oddly they cannot move their eyes and can only look forward so head rotation is critical.

Small rodents, such as voles and mice make up most of an owl’s diet. But it may also include amphibians like frogs, reptiles such as lizards and snakes, fish, mice, rabbits, birds, and squirrels. Great Horned Owls have been known to even eat skunks! Some owls are insectivores like the Flammulated Owl which eats insects almost exclusively.

Their stoic demeanor and two eyes looking forward probably contributed to human folklore that portrays owls as wise. In ancient Greek mythology, the Goddess of Wisdom, Athena, was so taken by the great eyes and solemn appearance of the owl, she made it her favorite bird. Athena is often portrayed with her “Little Owl”, (Athene noctua). The Greeks also believed that the owl’s night vision was caused by a magical “inner light.” “Little Owl” also kept watch over Athenian trade and commerce, and is featured on the reverse side of the Athenian tetradrachm coin.

Early Rome also had numerous myths connected to owls, including the deaths of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Commodus Aurelius, and Agrippa which were thought to have been predicted by an owl.

…yesterday, the bird of night did sit Even at noonday, upon the market place, Hooting and shrieking” (from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”)

The Roman army was warned of impending disaster by an owl before its defeat at Charrhea, on the plains between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

The famous storyteller Aesop wrote several fables featuring owls including the The Owl and the Grasshopper which ends with the warning, “flattery is not a proof of true admiration. Do not let flattery throw you off your guard against an enemy” and the Owl and the Birds which tells the reader, “Destroy the seed of evil, or it will grow up to your ruin.”

Owls come in all manner of sizes from the imposing Great Horned Owl (right) which is 24” high with a wingspan of 44” to the minute Northern Pygmy Owl (left) which is 6-7” high with a wingspan of 12. There are an estimated 250 owl species worldwide and they live on every continent except Antarctica. They differ from other raptors since they hunt at night and have unique, specialized feathers. These special feathers allow them to hunt almost silently–the original stealth fighter. They can get within inches of their prey without being detected. This is accomplished by the owl’s wing having a leading edge covered with small structures that project out. This prevents the normal whooshing noise of an ordinary wing where turbulence builds up as air rushes over it. Any remaining noise that might be detected by their prey is absorbed by soft down feathers on the owl’s wings and legs. These downy feathers absorb the high-pitched sounds that most prey can hear.

Owls are not only forward looking, they are also forward thinking. When hunting is good, owls will “stock up” and carefully cache their prey in a hiding spot, often using grass clumps, holes in trees, among rocks and in the forks of tree branches.

Although talented hunters, strangely owls are not great at building nests. Many owl species will piggyback on the hard work of other animals rather than make a nest from scratch. They take advantage of others vacant nests or simply make a home in tree hollows often made by woodpeckers.

Owls have fascinated us for thousands of years and continue to occupy a magical place in our literature, art and lore. From Winnie the Pooh’s friend Owl to Hedwig in the Harry Potter series, owls will continue to represent wisdom, knowledge, and the power of prophecy.

Ross A. FeldnerRCC Board Member

Publications and Web Consultant, Ross FeldnerRoss Feldner is the lead, with Bob Musil, of the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder Program.
Ross is a life-long birder and photographer who is the editor of the Friends of Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge newsletter. Ross also serves as a guide at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, a frequent birding spot for Rachel Carson who first learned about the health effects of DDT at the laboratory there. He is also the owner/art director of New Age Graphics, a full-service graphic design firm in Wheaton, MD.

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