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 in Pliny the Elder (“When it appears it foretells nothing but evil and…is more to be dreaded than any other bird…. Whenever it shows itself in cities or at all by daylight it prognosticates dire misfortune”) or in Shakespeare:
And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noonday, upon the market place,
Hooting and shrieking….
Owls have begun to lose their evil connotations recently, along with the evaporation of much else in folk wisdom and classical culture. In France a few years ago the slang adjective for something especially entrancing for young people was “chouette“—simply “owl.”
When owls are sympathetically observed, the truth turns out to be no less marvelous than the imaginings. I once watched a pair of Great Horned Owls, at a remote ranch in Venezuela, where they ignored human beings while they sang a duet in broad daylight, high in a great cypress. They sat side by side hooting in unison, the larger female chiming in a split second after the smaller but deeper-voiced male. Then they preened each other’s neck. Finally the male flopped down in the long grass nearby, wings spread in the hot sun, seeming to take pleasure in a sunbath. Some harbingers of death.
The owls of western folklore were abstracted from only three or four familiar European types: the Eagle Owl or its slightly smaller American equivalent, the Great Horned Owl; the Tawny Owl, best known from Dürer’s painting; the Little Owl of Athena; the ghostly pale Barn Owl that hisses from ruins or towers; perhaps the Snowy Owl of the cigar brand.
Real owls are much more varied and no less astonishing than the imaginary ones. There are about 135 species of owls in the world, depending on whether taxonomists “lump” similar groups together or “split” them apart. With the entire role of nocturnal airborne predator to themselves, they have spread out into many shapes and sizes. There are tiny owls no bigger than a sparrow, such as the Elf Owl that campers in the Arizona desert hear yelping all night in the streamside sycamores. At the other extreme, the great Eagle Owl of Europe and the rare Blakiston’s Fish Owl of Hokkaido stand two and a half feet tall. There are owls that nest on mounds in marshes, like the Short-eared Owl, and owls that nest in holes in trees, like the Saw-whet Owl. The Burrowing Owl of Florida and the American deserts stands at its burrow entrance all day bobbing up and down (which seems to us comical, but is merely a practical way to see better). Some of the most marvelous of all are the huge fishing owls of Africa and Asia that wade for their prey (Voous discusses three species of them).
Some kinds of owls are even active in daylight. That is inevitable for the all-white Snowy Owl of the high arctic where in midsummer there is no night. It is less a matter of necessity for other diurnal owls, such as the widespread Pygmy Owls, and the Hawk Owl of the northern forests.
No owls actually “see in the dark.” Owls simply have the capacity to use small amounts of light. If a Barn Owl proved capable of catching mice in total darkness, as Roger Payne showed in a famous experiment at Cornell, it was by its remarkable powers of hearing. Owls do not use echolocation, like bats or the strange Oilbirds that inhabit caves in Venezuela and Trinidad. They triangulate the slightly asynchronous sounds captured by huge, asymmetrical ears to locate a rustling mouse or bird. (This wouldn’t help the fishing owls, but they have been little studied and their hearing capacities are little understood.) Voous says that a Long-eared Owl hears about ten times better than the average human being. It is the coordination of these two remarkable senses that makes owls superbly accurate and agile hunters in feeble light.
Owls are killers. The folkloric association with death was not wholly inappropriate. The smallest owls may devour only crickets or frogs, but they do it voraciously. I once had a tiny Saw-whet Owl in temporary captivity that swallowed a chickadee whole in seconds, without leaving a trace. Later it spit up the chickadee’s bones and feathers in a pellet, the normal owl way of getting rid of coarse waste. The big owls are formidable. They will bloody a person who approaches a nest with young. Heimo Mikkola, a Finnish ornithologist who has specialized in the northern forest owls, advises that a motorcycle helmet with a visor is “required wear” for visiting a Great Grey Owl nest. Eric Hosking, the great British bird photographer, lost an eye to a mother Tawny Owl whose nest he was photographing. Nonetheless he published a celebrated sequence of shots of the owl’s attacks, and later entitled his autobiography An Eye For a Bird.
There are more owls around than most people think. The Tawny Owl is common in the parks and gardens of London and Paris. The Eastern Screech Owl has adapted so well to the woodlots of exurban America that an enthusiastic group conducting a Christmas bird census located 220 of them within a fifteen-mile circle around Lynchburg, Virginia, on December 18, 1976. The census takers used a “crutch”—they located the birds by playing a Screech Owl call on a tape-recorder to evoke a response—but their results were probably close to accurate. Even some big owls flourish reasonably close to civilization. There were over thirty pairs of Eagle Owls in the Alpilles, the little Provençal mountain range near Tarascon, a few years ago, and probably still are. Even on thickly settled Long Island, Christmas bird counts commonly find seven species of owls.
The best way to encounter owls is in the flesh (using due caution for one’s own, of course). If one is making do with books about them, however, the ultimate owl book may not yet exist. The two books reviewed here illustrate some of the achievements and pitfalls of current natural history writing. Neither one has time for picturesque owl stories or personal yarns, in the manner of A.C. Bent’s old Life Histories of North American Birds, and that is perhaps just as well.
The two authors under review have each produced what field biologists nowadays call a “handbook.” A handbook in these circles is not a handy volume to carry in one’s pocket, but a work of reference (perhaps, when the term originated, to be used with a specimen in hand) that gathers all known information about measurements, weights, plumages, distribution, movements, habitat, and behavior. Paul A. Johnsgard, professor of biology at the University of Nebraska and author of many similar studies of groups of birds, has written the more comprehensive work of the two. It is probably the most thorough survey of the latest scholarly research on owls in North America. It is handsomely presented with maps and illustrations, including a series of watercolors painted in the 1920s by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. His owls manage to look both fluffy and powerful, as they should.
Karel Voous, an eminent Dutch ornithologist already known as a biogeographer (An Atlas of European Birds, Elsevier, 1960) is more selective. His book’s main purpose is to provide an accompanying text for a series of striking, if slightly stiff, paintings by the Dutch bird artist Ad Cameron of forty-seven species of owls found in the northern hemisphere (not all of them, by a long shot), along with Cameron’s fluent pencil sketches that convey very well the variety of postures and expressions one owl can adopt for concealment or intimidation. Voous is interested primarily in two or three issues crucial to contemporary behavioral and ecological biology: the way each owl species fits into a specific environment, how it interacts with other owls or diurnal birds of prey, and its responses to human activity.
It is regrettable that handbooks nowadays are so eager to summarize current research that their texts become compendia of telegraphically compressed nuggets of information, each followed by a citation to the literature. The amount of research going on is indeed prodigious; two recent bibliographies of worldwide scientific publications about owls list about ten thousand titles. Neither of these books quite matches the skill of the Finn Heimo Mikkola in The Owls of Europe (1983), in finding the balance between the latest research and delight in its subject.
Concentrated upon owls in general, even the best handbook misses the astonishing complexity of behavior of an individual owl. They deal with the “unseen statistical owl” rather than the “real” flesh-and-blood owl, to use the terms of Bernd Heinrich in One Man’s Owl (Princeton University Press, 1987).* A behavioral biologist, Heinrich was of course committed to studying “statistical” owls, too. Having rescued an infant Great Horned Owl from a snowdrift and raised it, Heinrich attempted to conduct experiments on the way the young bird learned to hunt, and why other birds would gang up or “mob” an owl found during the day. Against the grain of all his previous scientific work, Heinrich could not resist “anthropomorphizing” the owl’s wide range of affectionate and aggressive responses to him. It was only after long and patient training that “Bubo” could be successfully returned to hunting for himself in the wild. The separation was painful for Heinrich.
The capacity of the scientist’s “statistical owls” to adapt to human activity, and their outlook for survival are of course concerns of both handbooks, too; Voous calls this section “Life in Man’s World.” Some owls are highly specialized and suffer if their particular ecological niche is disturbed. Thus the Spotted Owl can be expected to survive only if we decide not to finish harvesting the old-growth conifer forest of the American West, and the Short-eared Owl will survive only if we stop draining marshes at the present rate. Other owls, like the Horned Owls and Screech Owls already mentioned, are generalists and adapt readily to environments altered by mankind. Many species of owls accept nesting boxes, even the most seemingly untamed ones like the Great Gray Owl. The eleven boxes for Barn Owls, seven of them occupied, at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, within New York City, offer an ambiguous hope: Does the survival of “real” owls come at the price of human efforts to manage them that may transform them in ways we cannot foresee.
December 21, 1989