I have written about ghosts in the past, but they aren’t all I am interested in. Owls are another passionof mine and are repeatedly used in my novels. My owls always act in unusual ways, for instance—they fly together, like a flock of birds would do—which owls never do in real life; they attack humans, which is highly unlikely; and they guard or protect a human being, which is also not in their nature. This is the fun part of being a novelist. To serve the purpose of my story, owls may behave in any way I want them to, although I mostly stick to known facts.
We all know the basics of owls. They are birds known for their distinctive call, they are nocturnal, and their flight is silent. They’re also deadly if you happen to be a tiny creature. Owls are right up there with bats and spiders as the most popular creatures used for Halloween.
Owls are classified into two categories—barn owls have a heart-shaped face, and true owls have a round face. In each category, there are of course several species: 16 Barn Owl species and 190 True Owl species, to be exact. They don’t build nests, but make their home using anything that is convenient, from a nest built in the ground by other birds or burrowing animals, to a nook in a tree, to old abandoned buildings.
They are carnivorous and will eat rodents, small mammals, nocturnal insects, fish and even other birds. After digesting their food, owls regurgitate hard pellets of compressed bones, fur, teeth, feathers, and other materials they couldn’t digest. A barn owl can eat up to 1000 mice each year, and farmers try to attract barn owls to help control rodent populations in agricultural fields.
Most people will know that an owl’s eyes are fixed in their sockets, so that they have to turn their whole head to find their prey. You might have heard the tall tale that because of their fixed eyes, should you circle an owl, it will wring its own neck watching you. As the owl can only turn its head 260 degrees, this claim is impossible. Because their eyes are fixed, they have binocular vision, a necessity for hunting in the dark. An owl has three eyelids, one for blinking, one for sleeping, and one for keeping the eye clean and lubricated.
Their ears are asymmetrical, as well as being different sizes and heights on their heads. This gives the birds superior hearing, and the ability to pinpoint where the prey is even before they can see it. The flattened facial disk of an owl funnels sounds to the bird’s ears and magnifies it as much as ten times to help it hear noises humans can’t detect. Some owl species have ‘ear’ tufts on their heads but they aren’t ears at all. These tufts of feathers may indicate the bird’s mood and help keep it camouflaged.
Owls have zygodactyl feet, which means they have two toes pointing forwards and two toes pointing backwards. This gives them a stronger, more powerful grip on their prey. Their feathers have been especially adapted to muffle the sounds of flying, and their broad wingspan and light bodies help make them nearly silent in flight. Handy for stalking prey.
For most owl species, females are larger, heavier, and more aggressive than the males, with the females being the most colourful.
Hooting is not their only form of communication. They are capable of a wide range of sounds, such as screeches, whistles, barks, and hisses. During the nesting season, an owl’s calls can often be heard up to a mile away. And they sing duets with their breeding partner, who they mate with for life.
Here’s an interesting fact: Did you know that a group of owls is called a parliament?
Owls have been found in the fossil record up to 58 million years ago. The largest recorded owl fossil, Orinmegalonyx oteroi, stood about three feet tall. Images of owls have been found in cave paintings in France, in Egyptian hieroglyphics, and even in Mayan art. Most cultures focused on the dark aspect of the owl, mainly because of man’s inherent fear of the dark. Because the owl is nocturnal, and the medical fact that most deaths occur at night, the owl became associated with death.
The biggest modern threats to owls are habitat loss, pesticides that poison the birds and their food supplies, and human persecution because of negative superstitions.
Unfortunately for the owl, they have been much maligned by folklore and superstition. In ancient Greek mythology, Athena, Goddess of the Underworld and Wisdom, had a companion owl on her shoulder, which revealed unseen truths to her. The Japanese believe the owl warns them of impending danger. In Celtic folklore, the owl was sacred and endowed with magical powers. To the Welsh, the owl symbolised death, renewal, and wisdom. Today, owl superstitions still associate the birds with bad luck, death, and the stealing souls in many cultures. In paganism, the owl is associated with the goddess, wisdom, underworld deities, and prophecies.
Owl symbolism used in meditation and ritual can help you interpret dreams, unmask those who would deceive you, and find hidden spiritual truths.
For me, personally, hearing an owl hoot at night means something good is about to happen.
I couldn’t find another picture of an owl, so here’s a black rose, another passion of mine.