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The Wise Old Owl: Fact Versus Fiction: Whoo Knows the Truth?

By Kim Calcagno, Audubon Society of Rhode Island Naturalist.

audubon-great-horned-owl-2Can owls bring good luck and prosperity, or do they represent signs of bad things to come? Throughout history, humans have had cultural and mythical connections to owls. It has colored attitudes and treatment of these animals, and in some areas, affected their survival in the ecosystems of the world. The truth about these critters, however, is just as fascinating as the myths that surround them.

Special Event: Get up close with many amazing owl species and other birds of prey at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s annual Raptor Weekend on September 12 and 13, 2009 at the Audubon Environmental Education Center in Bristol, RI.

For the ancient Romans and some other European cultures, the owl represented wisdom and protection from evil spirits. In Japan, they are thought to ward off famine and in central Asia, owl feathers are thought to protect children and livestock from evil. However, in Russian and Slavic traditions, owls are believed to be the harbinger of death and most African and Indian cultures have taboos against owls. Indigenous tribes in North America vary in their beliefs. Some view owls as positive totems while others share in the belief of owls as bad luck and thieves of newly departed spirits.

Many traditions are rooted in the physical characteristics and habits of these animals. Most owls are nocturnal and have great ability to see in very low light. This was a wonderment in ancient times. Before electricity, many cultures were very fearful about darkness and spirits. They believed that any animal that could live and navigate at night surely must be evil. Others thought that owls had abilities see past the blanket of dark magic, thus making them good and wise. In truth, owls do have amazing night vision. Their eyes are very large – if humans had eyes of similar proportions, they would be the size of grapefruits. The one drawback to such huge eyes is that there is no room in the skull for them to move, so bony plates surround them. That’s why an owl has to be able to turn its head so far – it cannot move its eyes!

snowy_owl-audubon-owlThe owl’s head swiveling is also unnerving to some. They have twice as many bones in their neck as humans which enables them to turn their head about 270° horizontally. They can also tilt their head up turn it over to the side. They are simply exhibiting the characteristics of a good hunter. Sharp eyes and quick reactions are necessary for catching prey.

Like most predators, owls have front-facing eyes for spotting prey. Placement of their large eyes and beak, as well as the round, flat facial disk of feathers (used like a satellite dish for catching sound) gives the owl a rounded-face look very similar to a human’s. It is this appearance that is thought to have been the origin of the “wise old owl” myth and perhaps why owls are thought by some to possess the spirits of humans. Reality, however, shows that owls do not learn many skills from their parents and rely heavily on in-born instinct. Falconers rarely use owls for that reason – opting rather for hawks that can learn skills more easily. If we use human criteria to judge intelligence, a crow or raven would be considered much more intelligent than an owl.

If owl intelligence may be debatable, their skill as hunters is not. Whether hunting day or night, owls rely on their hearing as much as their eyesight. They will sit and rest for up to twenty hours, looking and listening for signs of prey. Owls can hear a mouse rustling in the leaves up to a half a mile away. Many believe their ears are on the top of their head because many have feather tufts that stick up. These are just for display and camouflage. Their actual ears are on the sides but are hidden behind their facial disk feathers. Owl ears do have one odd characteristic, though. They are offset. One ear is up high on the skull and the other is down low. This allows them to triangulate sound and tell whether it is coming from one direction or another as well as height. Is it coming from a tree? From the ground? Under the snow?

Unfortunately, folklore tall tales have caused many cultures to unfairly persecute or kill owls. Today, all raptors are state and federally protected due to their importance in ecosystems. They help keep rodents, other mammals, snakes, and even some insects populations balanced and under control. Large owls, like great horned owls, are indeed very powerful and can sometimes take larger animals like raccoons or skunks as prey. Like most birds, they have no sense of smell.
Most owls are also completely silent flyers. Their feathers are soft and pliable unlike most other flighted birds that have stiff feathers. They also have a comb-like fringe on the leading edge of their flight feathers, which allows air to break up as it passes over the wings, preventing any whistling or flapping noise. This allows owls, who fly slowly and low to the ground, to maneuver quietly through the trees and approach their prey stealthily.

There are over 150 species of owls worldwide. Here in New England, we have several species of native owls – ranging from the tiny northern saw-whet owl (the size of a sparrow) to the large great horned owl, whose strength is unsurpassed in the owl world. They are beautiful and amazing creatures. The Audubon Society of Rhode Island encourages you to learn more about them. Toss out the false myths and learn about their true feats and talents!

The Details:

Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s annual Raptor Weekend on September 12 and 13, 2009 at the Audubon Environmental Education Center in Bristol, RI. Join master falconer Laurie Schumacher from Hamilton, New York, for Talons! A Bird of Prey Experience on September 12 and 13 – European Eagle Owls, Gyr Falcons, and American Kestrels are just a few of the raptors featured. Breath-taking free flight demonstrations highlight this program focusing on raptor biology and conservation. New this year – Marcia Wilson of Eyes on Owls will introduce the audience to six or seven live owls found in New England as well as other parts of the world on Sunday, September 13. Wilson will also explore the protection of owls and their habitats.

There are many fall owl programs featured at Audubon locations across the state – join an Audubon naturalist for one! You won’t be disappointed by the grandeur of these wonderful creatures. Visit www.asri.org for a complete calendar of events.

Situated on a 28-acre wildlife refuge in Bristol, Rhode Island, Audubon’s Environmental Education Center is open year-round providing walking trails, nature programs, and exhibits for the whole family to discover.  For more information and a complete calendar of events, visit www.asri.org or call (401) 245-7500.

Photo Credit: Owl photos provided by Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

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