Thursday, April 8, 2010

Not everyone likes to see an owl


Yesterday I went back to Funk's Grove with my husband after work, still hoping to see that pileated woodpecker. You wouldn't think that a big bird that pounds at tree trunks like a jackhammer would be that elusive, but once again, I had nary a glimpse of it.

I didn't see all that many species; it was late in the day, and although the rain (did it ever RAIN earlier in the day!--the trail was more like a creek in some places) had stopped, it was still wet and windy. There was a nice meadowlark on the prairie, and a handsome pair of flickers--and A LOT of robins.

Still, I could admire the wildflowers. The bluebells are starting to bloom, and I also saw some yellow bellwort--at least flowers stay in one place, giving you all the time in the world to admire them.

Before we left, a barred owl flew silently across the path. I had heard it several times before, in that area of the Grove, but it was the first time this year that I actually saw one. I love owls. Once, many years ago, before I got into birding, I saw a barn owl flying across the night sky in Hawaii. I felt like it was some sort of personal message -- although if it was an omen, I was sure that it was good. And back in 2007, on a guided tour of the King Ranch in Texas, I was very pleased to see a ferruginous pygmy owl. (True, I only saw it through a spotting scope, where it was glaring at us for bothering it with owl recordings to make it appear, but still--I saw it! And it was nice!) More recently, I have had a couple of nice sightings of great horned owls...although the northern saw-whet owl I was hoping to find over the winter never did appear.

Who would not love an owl? As it turns out, a lot of people. Today, I looked up owl superstitions on the internet, and most superstitions associated with owls all over the world are negative.

Perhaps because they are nocturnal, and drift across one's path so swiftly and silently, like a specter, in many cultures owls are associated with death, witchcraft and ghosts. I found references to similar beliefs in cultures as varied as ancient Rome, Britain, several African and native American tribes, the Middle East... Poor owls!

Some more interesting superstitions include: an owl nesting in an abandoned building is proof that it is haunted; if an owl hoots during a funeral, the deceased will rise from the grave to haunt the living; looking into an owl's nest will curse you with melancholia; and if you walk around a tree that an owl is perching in, it will strangle itself trying to swivel its head all the way around in a circle. Some superstitions were downright harmful to the owl: in England, it used to be thought that nailing an owl's corpse to a barn door would ward off evil, and owls or owl eggs were thought to treat alcoholism, epilepsy, whooping cough, and poor eyesight.

The ancient Greeks were kinder in their beliefs about owls. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, chose an owl as her favorite companion; and Aesop depicted the bird as being quite wise in his fables.

In ancient Rome, witches were thought to be able to turn into owls, and, in a couple of myths, people (or rather deities) were changed into owls as punishment: Ascalpus in the Greek/Roman myth was turned into an owl for ratting on Hades after he kidnapped Persephone and dragged her down into the underworld; and in the more poetic but less comprehensible realm of Celtic myth, the Welsh goddess Blodeuwedd, who was created from flowers to be Lleu's wife, was turned into an owl for attempting to kill her husband so she could run off with another guy. (On a non-birding note: Alan Garner's young adult fantasy novel "The Owl Service" is an intriguing take on this myth.)

Personally, I think it would be kind of cool to be changed into an owl...at least for a day or two!

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