Owls: Creatures of Magic and Legend.
Some better known species of owlClick thumbnail to view full-size
Owls and Penguins are our favourites.
Owls: The Stuff of Magic and Legend.
by Robert Challen de Mercer
(From Charged Particles)
“All the forest dwellers take fright,
At the silent ruler of the night.
Wily hunter with steely grasp,
That ends a life without a gasp.
Eyes that pierce the deepest gloom;
His mournful cry the sound of doom;
Ears that catch the scuffling voles,
Stirring in their moss-lined holes.
Golden-eyed warrior of the glades;
Solemn Solomon of the shades:
Grim aerobat that knows no peer.
Wise owl, ‘tis only man you fear.".
Actually, although so many creatures fear man, his hunting instinct and his awful weapons, the owls in general, at least in the British Isles, are well protected and little persecuted by man today. One reason is obvious, they come out when we go to bed and all most folks know of the owl are rural dwellers who sometimes hear their calls: hoots and screeches. Another reason is, they fall into the lucky creatures who look something like us, along with the monkeys and their ilk. 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.. Achieving that for mere man would perhaps result in a quadriplegic!
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 put paid to a lot of our beloved song birds, we turn a blind eye to.
We also admire the owl’s ability to see in almost complete darkness. In fact, it has been determined that most owls can see better by “nightlight,” (the moon and stars) than we can in the full light of the sun. This allows them to see every detail of the woods far better than can the nocturnal mammals. Along with their downy feathers, which allows for almost silent flight; the crushing ability of their opposed pairs of powerful talons and their wide diet of insects and mammals, the owls still enjoy considerable success, despite the inroads of man into their territory.
There are close to 150 species of owls around the planet. They are described in the order Strigiformes. This order is contained two families, the Barn (Tyto sp) and the Afro-Asian (Phodilus sp). Others are simply gathered into a loose group, the Strigidae, which are themselves subdivided into several sub-families and are of more interest to the expert.
Some people regard owls, with accuracy, as cats with wings. It has the patient of Job - like the mouse-hole-watching moggie; it often forgets itself in the ecstasy of mating and dueling and rends the night with its raucous cries; and, as we have said, it is a great favorite of man like the cat who often seems to enjoy droit seigneur over many of us. (People who have pet owls have reported similar obsequiousness on their parts. Anyone who has tried to stare an owl down will know why!).
Few birds make the top ten list of stuffed toys for kiddies. One that does is the penguin, the other is the owl. Both, in one way or another, look like us. The penguin is especially beloved because it seems to behave like a mentally retarded human - or a clown. And the owl, because it’s fluffy with eyes that give it a wonderful “human” personality, and its killing equipment is so well hidden in nature beneath its pillowy exterior, it doesn‘t even need adding on the toy.. Toy manufacturers must love these two, because they have to do hardly any changing, as they do with reptiles and mammals like bears, to make the toys appealing. Imagine presenting little Johnny with a stuffed bear that looked just like a rampaging grizzly! You’d be arrested for child cruelty as the child ran screaming from Toys R Us. (Well, you find a way to reverse the “R” on a keyboard!).
Owls are a fairly ancient species, dating back nearly 60 million years, and proliferating as the age of the reptilian dominance was coming to an end. They did share the planet with some mammalian oddballs, none of which passed the test of time. Some of these were huge rhinos, the first horses the size of modern terriers and the rest. Man was not yet a gleam in the eye of its lemur-like ancestor. Plants ruled supreme as even flowers were not due to appear for millions of years in the future. The owls still had to compete with some pretty nasty birds, relics of the dinosaur age - some standing more than 7 feet tall and unable to fly. The owls must have had a hoot over these!
The first owl to appear in the fossil record as far as we can determine so far was found in Wyoming. At nearly 60 million years of age, this petrified specimen was easily recognizable as an owl. It’s just incredible how nature - evolution - exploits every possibility to create new species as soon as a niche appears. Small mammals began to succeed and along comes our owls to prey upon them. Owls, too, become prey to larger owls, even today, and to other birds of prey if the situation ever arises. Their nestlings - known musically as owlets - are subject to attack from other predatorily birds, mammals and snakes.
In India, their flesh is considered an aphrodisiac - apparently it is all too successful. Many cultures, including England, consider eating the eye of an owl helps you see in the dark, although we do cook it first. The owl has always been considered the most magical of birds, a harbinger of witchcraft, death and doom, competing for top honors with the raven. Even Shakespeare had his witches introducing owl flesh into the brew. And the bird has appeared in prose and verse for hundreds of years, perhaps the best known to Anglo children is Anon’s proverb…
“A wise old owl sat in an oak,
The more he saw, the less he spoke,
The less he spoke, the more he heard,
We should all be like that wise old bird.”
Along with many other birds of prey, owls were done a huge favor in the Bible’s Leviticus (11, 13-17). They were seen as abominations by the Hebrew peoples who were told to keep clear of them and never, above all, prepare them for the table. We’ll let the Spanish have the last word on all this nonsense: they say that as the owl was present upon Jesus’ death, it lost its once sweet song and love of the daylight and was shunned into the blackest nights and its voice reduced to “Cruz, cruz, cruz!” (Cross in Spanish). What vanity we humans have in our anthropomorphic ravings that postulate wild creatures give a fig for our silly lives. And if Jesus came 2,000 years ago, owls had been doing quite well with their peculiar calls for 60 million years previously…Bah!
With the exception of man, animals further up the food chain are less numerous than those below who they prey upon. And in our case, we can expect evolution to restore the balance very soon. We seem to have reached and passed the number of Homo sapiens the planet can comfortably sustain. As with all predators, from the lions in the Serengeti, to the barn owls in our woods, their numbers is controlled by the food supply. In a good mouse year, there are more hawks and owls. With owls, ornithologists have a handy way of checking the abundance and type of natural prey the owl is consuming year by year. Owls, by and large, consume their prey whole, then digest in leisure, the indigestible parts, used as fiber ; the bones, teeth and fur, etc., are compressed into tightly bundled pellets and regurgitated where they can be gathered and easily examined in the laboratory. As each owl coughs-up a different looking pellet, species identification is made easy, too.
It always makes be a little sad to see what has been my favorite bird by a mile dozing uneasily on a perch in some zoo. How they must suffer when the park empties; the sun goes down and the nocturnal creatures are afoot. How long the nights must be, unless they have been brain-washed into becoming diurnal. But these creatures were not taken from the wild, they were born in captivity or rescues, injured, and nursed back to health. What do they think about the parade of shifty little apes that file past their enclosures? One thing for sure, they should never feel inferior.
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