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.
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.
The 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.