Posts Tagged ‘Owls’

Toe Dusting

December 10, 2010

We met a Barn Owl this week. We liked him, but he didn’t care for us. As a matter of fact, when your author walked in to our store where the local animal rescue people had brought it for educational purposes, the owl lowered its head and shook it in the universally recognized shake of disapproval. The rescuers of the owl told me not to take it personally, but I knew better. That owl was rescued after an encounter with a high voltage electrical line which it would not have encountered were it not for humanity’s insatiable desire for electricity. He had no use for me or any other of my fellow Homo sapiens, except possibly for those who rescued him and now care for him.

The rescuers assured us the owl was “toe dusting.” Fairly new to its role as a teacher of humans, the owl was stressed and toe dusting was the physical sign of that stress. Ornithologists hold that Barn Owls lower their heads and shake it over their talons, either as an aggressive signal or as a defensive behavior.

Toe Dusting

I don’t believe it. They do it as a message of disapproval, just like that herbaceous Mountain Goat on the Olympian Peninsula in Washington State a few weeks ago when it gored a man in the leg and then stood over the man until he bled to death. The animals are getting angry with us and who can blame them?

But even if it was threatening me, that owl has the softest eyes of any bird I’ve ever seen up close. Mind you, if I were a field mouse or a vole scuttling across a snow field on a cold, crystalline night and looked up when that owl’s shadow crossed the snow I doubt that I would find anything soft about those eyes. I would see the eyes of a minister of death. And that shadow I would see the instant before my death would be the first clue I had that an owl was anywhere nearby: Owls are about the only land-dwelling animals who never make a sound they don’t intend to make.

But I was in no danger from the owl, and I loved his eyes. They reminded me of Edward Howe Forbush springing to the defense of Barn Owls in his magisterial Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States. Defending them from unjust persecution, he called them “benefactors to mankind.”

Like Forbush, I may be susceptible to emotional projection and may have mirrored my own consciousness when I looked in those eyes, but I don’t believe that either. Those were the wise eyes of an old soul looking out at me.

Merlin

The rescuers also brought a Merlin with them. Nothing soft about a Merlin’s eyes I can assure you. Falcon eyes put one in mind of Yeats’ horseman,

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

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Here is our post on identifying Barn Owls and here is more on Barn Owls and Halloween. George Orwell also wrote about Barn Owls.

The Wisdom of Owls

March 30, 2009
Juvenile Spotted Owl by David Utterback

Juvenile Spotted Owl by David Utterback

The most often read post on this blog is now “Halloween and Barn Owls.” Sometime ago it passed even “Crows and Ravens Part IV” which is the post where we tell you precisely and clearly how to tell the difference between a Crow and a Raven and even help you identify which kind of crow and raven.  Now we are hard at work on a post telling you how to identify various owls.

In the meantime we thought we would remind you of one of James Thurber’s fables.  Specifically the one about the owl who was God.

Once, according to Thurber, on a dark night, an owl, perched in an oak tree, heard two moles scurrying about on the ground.  The owl said, “Who?” startling the tiny mammals one of whom sqeaked, “Who?”  To which the owl replied, “You two!”  The moles ran off and reported to all the animals in the forest that the owl could see in the dark, answer all questions, and therefore must be the wisest of all animals.

The Secretary bird wasn’t having any and charged off to test the owl.  Arriving at the oak tree the bird demanded that the owl, in pitch darkness, answer the question, “How many fingers am I holding up?”  (Secretary birds, of course, don’t have fingers but Thurber is telling us a fable here, not reporting scientific fact.)  The owl answered — correctly — “Two.”  The secretary bird then asked the owl for another word which means “that is to say” or “namely.”  From the tree came the answer, “to wit.”  So the secretary bird asked its last question, “Why does a lover call on his love?”  “To woo,” answered the owl.

sagittarius serpentarius

sagittarius serpentarius

Secretary birds live in sub-Saharan Africa, spending most of their time on the ground.  They are not small birds; some grow to a height of 4 feet.  Thurber was a writer, not an ornithologist.  We may suspect he chose a Secretary bird for his fable because of its name and for no other reason.

So this secretary bird returned to all the animals, reporting that the owl could see in the dark and knew everything.  There was a doubter in the group as there always is in any group.  The fox wanted to know if the owl could see in daytime too but all the other animals laughed at the fox.  They sent a messenger off to tell the owl they wanted him for their leader.

secretary-birdThe owl appeared among them at noon the next day with huge globular eyes and all the animals thought he was God and started following him everywhere he went.  When he bumped into trees, so did they; when he started walking down the center of a highway, they followed.  Pretty soon a hawk saw a truck bearing down on them and reported to the Secretary bird who said to the owl, “There’s danger ahead!”  The owl calmly asked, “To wit?”  But about that time the truck ran them over.  Except for the fox who had refused to go along. Since this is a kind of a fairy tale, he probably lived happily ever after.

As you can tell, Thurber was using the fable story-telling form – invented, so far as we know, by Aesop – so, in addition to the conflict introduced by the fox, the story has to have a moral.  Here is how Thurber described the moral of this story: You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.

But for us, as birders, the moral might be stated differently: There is a reason you don’t often see owls during the day.

_______________

Keven Law took the photo of the yawning secretary bird; Chris Eason took the photo of the entire bird.  You can read more about David Utterback here.

We read Thurber’s owl fable in our copy of Thurber: Writings and Drawings, published by the Library of America. Thurber’s fables were originally published as Fables for Our Time and Further Fables for Our Time. For more about Thurber himself, try this.

Halloween, Owls and the Headless Hawk

October 30, 2008
The Tropical Screech Owl

The Tropical Screech Owl

Once was a place called Sleepy Hollow, a haunted region from where a contagion blew forth; an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land.  A birder lived there.  His name was Ichabod. He especially loved Cranes.

Rockwell's Ichabod of the Cranes

Rockwell's Ichabod of the Cranes

The chief bird of the region was known as the Spectre of Sleepy Hollow, a mighty hawk, which had been heard several times of late and who, it was said, spent the nights among the graves in the church-yard.  Many sought to add it to their life lists; many failed.

Not far from the church, over a deep black part of the stream, was a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime.  This was the favorite haunt of the headless hawk and the place where he was most often sought by lonely birders.

On this witching night, Halloween, Ichabod the Birder pursued his way homeward.  The hour was dismal and so was Ichabod whose lady love had rejected him that very afternoon. In the dead hush of midnight no signs of life appeared nearby except the occasional melancholy chirp of a cricket or perhaps the long, lonely hoot of an owl, far off in the trees.

As Ichabod wended his way, by swamp and stream and awful woodland, every sound of nature, at that witching hour, fluttered his excited imagination: the moan of the whip-poor-will, a bird which is only heard at night, the boding cry of the tree-toad, that harbinger of storm; the dreary hooting of the screech-owl, or the sudden rustling in the thicket of birds frightened from their roost.

Western Screech Owl

Western Screech Owl

In the centre of the road stood an enormous tree, which towered like a giant above all the other trees of the neighborhood, and formed a kind of landmark. Its limbs were gnarled, and fantastic, large enough to form trunks for ordinary trees, twisting down almost to the earth, and rising again into the air. . . .

As Ichabod approached this fearful tree, he felt a blast of miasmatic air sweeping sharply through the dry branches. . . . In the dark shadow he beheld something huge, misshapen, black and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.

What was to be done? To turn and fly was now too late; and besides, what chance was there of escaping ghost or goblin, if such it was, which could ride upon the wings of the wind?

Just then the shadowy object of alarm put itself in motion, and, though the night was dark and dismal, yet the form of the unknown might now in some degree be ascertained. He appeared to be a hawk of large dimensions.

On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure this bird in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck, on perceiving that the hawk was headless!

Groping for his binoculars, Ichabod failed to notice that the hawk was winging straight toward him.  Ichabod’s horse noticed though and broke into a run. Away they dashed, Ichabod’s flimsy garments fluttered in the air, as he stretched his long lanky body away over his horse’s head, in the eagerness of his flight. . . .

Just then he heard the beating of the hawk’s wings close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath. Now Ichabod cast a look behind and saw the hawk rising in the sky, as if to stoop down and strike.  Too late Ichabod saw the tree branch which encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash—he was tumbled headlong into the dust.

The next morning Ichabod’s horse was found without his saddle,  and with the bridle under his feet, soberly cropping the grass. Pages of Ichabod’s life list were found in the church graveyard but he was never seen again.

________________________
Juan Liziola took the photograph of the tropical screech owl. I took the photo of the Headless Hawk which I swear has not been photoshopped in any way.

Poor Washington Irving.  His work is long out of copyright thus subject to the mangling of bloggers. We thank him for his story and ask his pardon for the liberties taken with it.


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