24 January 2017

The Silent Shadow of the Barn Owl

A collection of owls: A Parliament, or a Wisdom of Owls.

One of the biggest delights, I discovered, when moving from a busy North London suburb to the rural countryside of North Devon were the owls. Not just hearing them at night, but actually seeing them, in flight or roosting in the trees near the house. The icing on the cake occurred two weeks after we had moved in on a snowy 18th January 2013. My husband and I happened to be in the kitchen looking out at the glorious (if somewhat wintery) view – and saw a barn owl gliding over the field beyond the orchard. It was the most wonderful moment and even now, these few years later, there is still something magical about watching ‘our’ barn owls hunting over that same field.

photo ©Kathy Hollick-Blee
Owls are fascinating – even awesome. Fossils have been found from sixty million years ago, revealing that the species has changed very little. They are admired or feared, worshipped or condemned. They have been regarded as good omens, bad omens, associated with superstitions, witchcraft, medicine, death, birth and even the weather. Why? Probably because they are night birds (although we have seen the barn owls hunting as late as 11a.m. and as early as 3pm – in the summer.) Almost undoubtedly the fear of them is because they are silent. Barn owls rarely call (unlike the noisy Tawny Owl) and their flight is completely without sound. You don’t hear their wings beating, or even a swish of sound as they glide past.

All owls are carnivorous, devouring small mammals, small birds, reptiles, large insects. They have sharp beaks and claws, and some can be particularly vicious if encountered. Most owls have a rounded shape and large head, with face-feathers which form a facial disk serving to direct sound towards the ears – a bit like your TV satellite dish. An owl’s vision is highly developed with eyes in a frontal position, allowing for depth and three-dimensional sight. They can turn the head 270 degrees. Owls have particular flight feathers, fringed at the top surface and then contoured. The friction between the feathers and the air is damped, thus creating the silent flight.

photo ©Tony Smith
In many branches of folklore and myth, like in Indian culture or the Greek Myths, owls are associated with prophecy and wisdom: “The wise old owl lived in the old, old oak, the more he heard the less he spoke; the less he spoke the more he heard – now why can’t we be like that wise old bird?”

To dream of an Owl is to be forewarned of shipwreck or robbery, and it seems owls became a night bird as a form of punishment: the 12th Century English preacher and fabulist, Odo of Cheriton, insisted that because an owl stole a rose, the flower of beauty, the other birds condemned it to a life in the darkness.

The Greek Goddess of Wisdom, Athene’s symbol is the owl, although her bird is a Little Owl, Athene Noctua. The Goddess – and her owl – were seen as protectors of Athens and her armies. Soldiers took it as a sign of immanent victory if an owl flew overhead just before battle commenced, and as a guardian of commerce and trade the owl was depicted on the reverse side of coinage.

For the early Romans, however, a dead owl when nailed to a house door to ward off evil, a custom which persisted throughout Europe, and England, into the 19th century. 

For a Roman, to hear an owl calling predicted a death. Apparently before Julius Caesar, Augustus, Commodus Aurelius, and Agrippa died, owls were heard. Not really surprising if owls were in abundance and it was evening – no one seems to remark that on other nights when owls were active various figures of importance managed to survive the night!

In Europe, by the Middle Ages, however, owls meant witchcraft, even in Roman times witches changed their appearance into owls to drink the blood of babies. Owls were regarded as wicked spirits, portents of death and the carrying-off of the spirit or soul. Understandable when you think of a dark forest, an eerie call, and a silent shape gliding through the frightening shadows. On the other hand, various countries, and in particular in the north of England, owls were considered to bring good luck.

photo ©Kathy Hollick-Blee
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) used the barn owl as a bird of doom in his poems, while for weather-watchers, an owl’s screech meant the coming of cold weather or a storm, although if it was already bad outside an owl’s call indicated a change in the weather. (Nothing like hedging your bets is there?)

A raw owl’s egg will cure drunkenness, or cooked until they became ash would be a cure for poor eyesight. (With my failing sight… no, I am not going to try it!). Whooping cough could be cured by drinking owl broth.

Some American Indian tribes regard owls as bringers of sickness and death, others as protective spirits or the souls of the recently departed and should be respected. The Cree of North America believed that the calls of owls were spirits, if a person answered with a similar sound he (or she) would soon die. In Dakota the Hidatsa Indians thought of the Burrowing Owl as a spirit to protect their warriors, while the Hopis Indians thought of the same owl as the god of the dead, a guardian of fires and carer of things underground, including sown seed. They called the Burrowing Owl the Ko'ko, meaning "Watcher of the dark." In California, the Newuks believed the brave and virtuous became Great Horned Owls after death, whereas wicked people become barn owls. For the native peoples of the Sierras the Great Horned Owl took dead souls down into the underworld. For some tribes death was described as passing over the owl bridge.

The barn owl, Tyto Alba, with its pale colouring and heart-shaped facial disk is unmistakable. It doesn’t build a nest, but the female lays her eggs in tree holes or buildings – often barns, hence its familiar name. Adding to the superstitions, their ghostly pale colour, silent nocturnal flight and a tendency to nest or hunt in places like graveyards it is no wonder that they are associated with the spirits of the dead. When they do vocalise (they have seventeen different calls) their voice when alarmed or issuing defence is similar to a human scream.

photo ©Tony Smith
Whether you think them lucky or unlucky, the barn owl is an endangered species, lack of suitable habitation, pesticides, and meeting with oncoming cars being their greatest danger. When you think that a pair of barn owls can devour about 2,000 mice a year, to farmers they are essential. Be wary if you (or your fictional characters) find an injured owl, use a jacket or sack (or lady’s underslip?) to wrap it in – those claws and beak are sharp. Leave it in a quiet, dark place and contact your nearest wildlife centre - except of course, in the context of historical fiction.

One of the most famous old Welsh stories about owls can be found in the MabinogionBlodeuwedd, the Goddess of Betrayal, was created from flowers by the magician Gwydion, but due to her actions of betrayal she was transformed into a white owl, destined to haunt the night forever in lonely sorrow. In Welsh, Blodeuwedd means ‘owl’.

photo ©Tony Smith
Barn owl hunting over the field behind our orchard
February 2016
©Kathy Hollick-Blee

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  1. A wrong maligned bird. I've always considered them noble. One of my characters has a Pharaoh's Owl as a companion.

    You know, for an English girl who likes pirates, you're "up" on your native American tribes. LOL

    Did I ever mention that I'm a cousin of Jean Lafitte? I think he and Jesamiah shared a tankard once.

    Or was it a wench? ROFLMAO

    1. I so love sitting at my dfesk and watching the barn owls in the field beyond the orchard (as in the photos and video)
      AS for Jesamiah - I guess I have to be a little dismayed at his morals for it was probably a keg, not a tankard, AND the wench...

  2. Oh wonderful post. Another blogger and I were just talking about Owls and her child just finished reading Owl Moon. We are very lucky to have many owls in my area. Once, my son and I even dissected a few owl pellets. Really enjoyed this post!

    1. Thanks Ginger Dawn - they are fascinating creatures aren't they?

  3. Iain and I were lucky enough to see a barn owl just the once, ages ago. I live in the hope of encountering another one, but at least I have seen one.. What a magical experience.


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