The Company of Owls

North American Owls: Biology and Natural History

by Paul A. Johnsgard, with watercolors by Louis Agassiz Fuertes
Smithsonian Institution Press, 295 pp., $45.00

Owls of the Northern Hemisphere

by Karel H. Voous, illustrated by Ad Cameron
MIT Press, 320 pp., $55.00

No encounter with an owl is a trivial affair. Owls are full of mystery and portent; they are not to be taken casually. Owls have struck the human imagination forcefully from the earliest times. They are pictured in Sumerian tablets accompanying Lilith, the goddess of death. A learned ornithologist later gave the Latin name Athene noctua lilith to the Middle Eastern desert race of the Little Owl (pictured in Voous’s book on p. 183). But “Lilith of the Desert,” Karel Voous tells us, was probably the larger Hume’s Owl, Strix butleri, whose mournful cries in the desert night were thought to be a harbinger of death. Hume’s Owl is probably also the “night hag” who will inherit the land of the Lord’s enemies in Isaiah 34:14. Owls have never ceased to figure abundantly and ominously in folklore and literature.

There are several reasons for the prominence of owls in the human imagination. Their invisibility allows us to speculate freely about them. At night, in their element, owls are only a sinister shape or a blood-curdling shriek. Encountered by day, out of their element, owls are likely to be impassive. Sleeping or staring fixedly at one, owls have a “face” that seems recognizably human. This does not reflect any particular wisdom or kinship to humans, we now know, but results from the way acute vision and acute hearing are organized to make the owl an effective killing machine. The huge eyes are placed at the front, both looking forward, rather than at the sides, as in most birds. This gives them the precision of forward binocular vision. The eyes are nearly fixed in their sockets, adding a disconcerting intensity to the stare.

It is only by swiveling the whole head, up to 270 degrees, that the eyes are redirected, so that the owl always looks straight at you, whatever its position. Acute directional hearing is provided by capacious ear cavities hidden under a disk of feathers that apparently helps focus the sound, and that forms the “face.” (The devilish “ear tufts” on many owls have nothing to do with hearing, but probably help to form cryptic patterns for camouflage). Its human-seeming face tempts us to imagine a character for the owl, and we deem it wise, or foolish, or pompous (like Wol in Winnie-the-Pooh), or “drunk as a hoot owl”—contradictory qualities all popularly assigned to owls.

Among the variety of images attached to owls, none is particularly benign. The most positive image is the classical association with the wisdom of Minerva or Athena. The owl that appeared on some coins of the Athenian republic is recognizably the Little Owl, Athene noctua, which still stares solemnly at tourists around Mediterranean ruins. But there are few helpful owls in literature or folklore, like the ravens that fed Elisha or the gulls that fed the Mormons. Across centuries and across cultures, including American Indian cultures (Johnsgard devotes a whole section to these), the predominant image is that of the foreteller of doom, as…

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