The Hidden Lives of Owls

The Hidden Lives of Owls

“Sunlight, moonlight, twilight, starlight — gloaming on the shut of day, and an owl calling,” Walter de la Mare wrote in his “Dream Song”. “When shadows cool and owls name,” Nikki Giovanni writes a century later, “how can there be no Heaven.”

Owls have haunted the human thoughts for so long as we’ve shared land and sky with them. They have executed for our terrestrial and aerial creativeness what the octopus has done for the aquatic — no different feathered creature has impressed our poetic reverie, our myth-making, and our scientific curiosity in equal measure. That sundry enchantment is what scientist and nature author Leigh Calvez explores in The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds (public library).

Illustration from Beastly Verse by JooHee Yoon

Calvez maps the cultural stature of owls in a worldwide atlas of mythology:

The owl’s lengthy affiliation with the Greek goddess of knowledge, Athena, gave rise to the Burrowing Owl’s scientific identify, Athene cunicularia. For centuries, the Ainu folks of northeastern Japan have revered the Blakiston’s Fish Owl, the heaviest owls on the planet weighing as a lot as ten kilos, as “the Emperor of the Night” or “the God That Protects the Village.” The Mayans wore owl amulets the wrong way up in order that the protecting owl spirit might search for on the individual it was defending. In Kazakhstan, there exists a mountain vary the place solely feminine shamans go to attach with the spirit of the owl. The Scandinavian Sami folks imagine that owls are good luck. And the Native American Navajo imagine owl and coyote maintain the stability of day and night time.

Art from Bear and Wolf by Daniel Salmieri

As alchemy gave rise to chemistry, superstition is commonly the gateway by means of which an object of curiosity enters the area of science. Calvez enhances the cultural historical past of owl mythology with the evolutionary historical past and taxonomy of those unusual and wondrous birds:

For greater than sixty-seven million years, owls have roamed the earth, flying, searching, and elevating their households at midnight. As the taxonomic order Strigiformes, owls break up from the evolutionary department of the raptors and developed to not solely survive in however thrive in practically each habitat on the planet, from excessive polar areas to excessive desert steppe and from deep primeval forests to the farms and neighborhoods related to human civilization. Owls are divided into two households: Tytonidae, barn owls, the oldest owl species with a heart-shaped face, and Strigidae, typical or true owls, with a spherical face.

Snowy owl and Lapp owl from The Royal Natural History (1893) by Richard Lydekker

The options that lend owls their singular attract, Calvez factors out, are the results of the distinctive evolutionary variations, millennia within the making, that coronated them kings of the night time — the massive, yellow, forward-facing eyes, tubular and immovable, that made it needed for the owl’s head to rotate 270 levels; the nocturnal imaginative and prescient honed right into a German Expressionist masterpiece of evolution by eyes endowed with extra black-and-white detecting rods than shade ones; the facial feathers fanned right into a sonic satellite tv for pc dish dispersing sound to the unlevel ears, one positioned greater than the opposite to assist the owl find its prey in three dimensions; the pivoting fourth talon, a sort of opposable thumb that may level each from side to side to make sure the deadliest grip.

In the rest of The Hidden Lives of Owls, Calvez explores the actual marvels of every of the key owl species — from how the native lemming inhabitants determines the variety of eggs Snowy Owls lay every mating season to the communal roosting practices of Long- and Short-eared Owls to the astonishing feather mechanics of their silent flight. Complement it with these gorgeous nineteenth-century drawings of owls, then soar into the world of one other fascinating raptor: the hawk.