Thursday, October 25, 2012

Owl Facts and Folklore

    By William Bond Hughes

Owls are a family of birds known to everyone.  Of the eighteen species of owls that breed in North America, eight species have been recorded at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.  The three species that nest within the refuge, eastern screech, great horned and barred, are the owls most likely to be seen at the refuge.

Barred Owl at Hagerman NWR, by Nancy Miles Miller
Owls are birds of prey but are not closely related to other birds of prey such as hawks, eagles and falcons.  Biochemical evidence shows that the closest relatives of owls are the nighthawks (common nighthawk) and nightjars (chuck-wills-widow and eastern whip-poor-will).  Both owls and nighthawks/nightjars rest during the day and hunt at night.

Owls are superbly adapted for their nocturnal mode of hunting.  Their proportionately large eyes enable them to see under very low light conditions.  The ear openings of many owls are larger than usual among birds, and the opening on one side of the head is higher than on the other side.  Together, these two adaptations enable owls to locate prey by sound even in the dark.  The flight feathers of owls are modified so that the sound of air passing over the feathers during flight is greatly reduced thus allowing a silent, undetected approach to prey.

Populations of many tree cavity-nesting owls declined during the early history of the United States from intensive logging operations that deprived them of their nesting sites.  Fortunately, the ready acceptance of nest boxes as breeding sites has resulted in the rebound of these populations.  I know from personal experience that the eastern screech owl readily accepts a box, and I know of a case where two screech owls occupied boxes within the same yard!  Plans for building owl boxes can easily be found on the internet.

Their distinctive appearance and behavior has led to the creation of many myths and legends regarding owls which fall into two main categories:  owls are associated with wisdom and owls are associated with death. 

An example of the wise owl can be found in the fables of Aesop which originated in the sixth century B.C.  In the fable of the owl and the other birds, the owl advises the other birds that flax seeds should not be allowed to grow as the resulting plants could be made into fibers which could be woven into nets to trap the birds. 

The Greek goddess Athena, patron goddess of Athens and the goddess of wisdom, had the owl as a symbol.  Coins of ancient Athens portrayed Athena on one side and an owl on the other. 

The Zuni, a pueblo tribe of the American Southwest, have a story about the wisdom of the burrowing owl which lives in prairie dog towns.  When heavy rainfall threatened to drown their sources of food, the prairie dogs asked the burrowing owl what should be done.  In response, the owl began to beat a bag which contained the foul-smelling secretion of a particular beetle.  At each stroke, the rain clouds moved farther off, and with a final blow the sky became perfectly clear.  The prairie dogs came out of their burrows and loudly praised their “great priest, the grandfather burrowing owl”.

In current usage, a group of owls is called “a wisdom of owls”.

The association of owls with death is very widespread in folklore.  Among the Kikuyu of Kenya it is still widely believed that owls are harbingers of death.  If one sees an owl or hears its hoot, someone was going to die.  An old saying in Mexico still used today is "When the owl cries, the Indian dies".

ED Note:  Woo Hoo for Owls will be the topic at Second Saturday for Youth, led by Katie Palmer,  on November 10, 2012, and Owls will be Dr. Wayne Meyer's topic for Second Saturday, February 9, 2013, at the Refuge.

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