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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Hooty Owl-o-ween. This year's Halloween creature, the owl

Hooty Owl-o-Ween
Trick or Treat From the Bestiary: The Owl

Last night I was on a night hike in a wooded wetland in Northern Texas. I heard the ‘hoot’ of the Barred Owl (Strix varia). 

The Barred Owl’s call sounds like this: "who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all," and "who-who-who-who, who-who-who-whoowha" Listening to their calls and the song of the night insects made me feel in touch with twilight. Click on link to hear their calls

These days as the sun sets, we are tuned to electronics from TV to i-pads or driving with our radios blasting. I highly recommend going out in the woods and listening for your local owls and or other night critters. Imagine what hearing the hoot might have sounded like as you rode your horse through the dark forest on your way to deliver a message to King Guy on the Throne.

On Halloween, as you walk down the streets and to the storefronts, you will see a decorative owl or two. Throughout our history and across many cultures, people have had a great fascination with owls. You can spend days, reading about global owl myths and lore. The owl can evoke a series of emotions, from fear to admiration. Owls are associated with witchcraft and therefore a favorite Halloween decoration. 

In Romania, vampires were known as Strigoli, from the Roman word, strix, which referred to the screech owl. Strega, which is Italian for witch is also derived from the word, strix. They are also associated with medicine, birth, death, the weather, and wisdom. 
According to Paul Johnsgard (North American Owls: Biology and Natural History, Smithsonian Institution Press), Mesopotamian tablets from 2,300 B.C. depict the goddess Lilith as "winged, bird-footed, and typically accompanied by owls," a significant association because Lilith was Sumeria's goddess of death. 

Pallas Athene--Greek goddess of fertility and power--was also affiliated with the owl, possibly "because of the nocturnal (and especially the lunar) . . . associations between female fertility goddesses and the cycles of the moon."

Owls have been associated with wisdom. A bird sacred to the Goddess of Wisdom, Athena.

To the ancient Romans, to hear the hoot of an Owl presaged imminent death. The deaths of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Commodus Aurelius, and Agrippa were apparently all 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")

Fortunately, for me and other owl enthusiasts, owl hooting has not presaged our deaths. 
Though stumbling over a log in the dark, while listening to hooting can cause injury.
So why has the owl earned a special place in our lore? Especially spooky lore. Allow me to muse.

For one thing owls are crepuscular, which means they come out at the most mysterious time of the day, twilight. The sun is setting, darkness rises and these nocturnal creatures become vocal and active. Man’s fear of the dark, or night has added to the fear of the owl as a harbinger of death. 

Owls look so darn human. This is due to the position of their huge eyes. Unlike most birds whose eyes are on the sides of their heads, the owl’s eyes look ahead as our do, and they have to rotate their heads to see all round them, again, as man does, but owls are a bit better at it, their heads can swivel nearly 180 degrees to each side, adding up to nearly 360 degrees. A pretty freaky thing to see.

Here are reasons why Owls appear supernatural:
They swoop in silently because of downy feathers. Without a warning the owl’s powerful talons silently crushes the mouse.  Fan an owl’s feather compared to another bird’s feather to hear the difference.

Owls have amazing night vision and can see in almost complete darkness.
Their hearing is also superior and they can pinpoint a mouse’s footsteps despite other ambient sounds. At a raptor center, there was one barn owl that was nervous around a handler. It detected that she had a heart murmur.

They have a ravenous (sorry ravens) appetite. Researchers found that one barn owl family can consume 3,000 voles/year. Owls are our best ally in eating rodent pests. The owl regurgitates undigested bones and fur called owl pellets or castings. Finding such pellets might have inspired ancient people to associate owls with death. 

Other reasons why owls contributed to eerie legends:
Often owl vocalizations and screeching cans sound very human and even evil.
Seeing a white owl at night might have been one of the reasons the lore of white ghosts evolved. Even recently mystery lights can possibly be blamed on owls. Or what about those aliens we call the greys with their owlish faces and huge black barn owl like eyes? 

Also, owls consume a lot of what we see as vermin, young rats, mice, rabbits and other small mammals who enjoy eating our cash crops or garden veggies. That they also occasionally eat song birds and snakes. Birds will often be seen mobbing owls. Did we identify with diurnal birds who deem the owl as a threat? 

So step outside and listen for the owl. If you do, thank him/her for keeping our rodent population down and wish them a Hooty Owl-o-ween. Hoot me comments.

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