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Owls: myth and mystery

Posted: February 18, 2014 5:42 p.m.
Updated: February 19, 2014 5:00 a.m.

by Josh Arrants

Each winter, as the colder temperatures settle farther south and thin the humidity in the South Carolina air, I look forward to the earlier sunsets and the longer nights. There is an enchantment that accompanies the darkness and it isn’t difficult to understand why so many cultures throughout history have held reverence for the creatures that inhabit the night. To early humans, any animal that was able to succeed behind the deep purple veil of night must surely be magical or possess abilities not granted by anything of this realm. Perhaps it is this reason that such superstition surrounds owls. Without a doubt, I get asked more questions about owls than any other birds, with the majority of those questions being related to superstition and old wives’ tales.

Owls date back some 60 million years and are the epitome of evolutionary success, having become the rulers of the nighttime air. Interest in owls goes back to prehistoric humans, with owls being one of only a few birds depicted in prehistoric cave paintings. Eagles, falcons, and hawks may be held in high esteem in various cultures for strength or speed, but owls are almost uniformly admired for their apparent wisdom and sage judgment. The veneration of owls is carried over into the fact that a group of owls is referred to as a "parliament" or "wisdom" of owls.

The likely explanation of this can be traced back to Greek mythology, where the Little Owl was an ever-present companion of the Greek goddess, Athena. As it would happen, Athena was the goddess of wisdom, justice, courage and strategy. Athena’s Roman counterpart, Minerva, was also closely identified with owls. Romans believed owls were sent by Minerva to warn of potential danger and this eventually led to owls being linked to ill outcomes. Romans also believed the night air contained and carried disease, pollution and death. Since owls are found in what was viewed as that same miasmic air, the legend of owls bringing death was born.

Here in Kershaw County, we have four species of owls – Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Barn Owl and Eastern Screech-Owl. All four species are year-round residents and breed here. We also get a couple of rare visitors to our little county. Occasionally, we may find vagrant Short-eared Owls and Northern Saw-whet Owls drifting south of their normal ranges in the winter to spend some cold nights hunting nearby fields and forests. While these visits are rare, they pale in comparison to the visitor we had a couple years ago. A Snowy Owl made its way extremely south to Camden back in January 2012, making it one of the most unusual feathered visitors we’ve hosted in Kershaw County.

Each of these amazing owls is subject to myth and lore that stems from their nocturnal behavior and the mystery surrounding how they survive. By taking a look at how owls are built, we can get a better understanding of the ways they have succeeded at living in the shadows and lightlessness. First of all, owls possess flight feathers that have tiny rough and tattered edges that deafen the sound of air flowing over the wings. They are also covered, down to their talons, with very soft feathers that dampen any noise that could be made as they move. If prey can’t hear owls flying towards them, the first time most know they’re being hunted is when the owl is gathering them in its talons. Owls were flying with stealth millions of years before Lockheed’s Skunk Works developed the Have Blue. Quiet as a mouse is good. Quiet as an owl is even better!

Secondly, owls have eyes that have evolved to utilize even the smallest amount of light. Eyes contain photoreceptors called rods and cones. Rods are sensitive to changes in light and shadows and cones are sensitive to colors. Owls have a tremendous number of rods, the light sensitive photoreceptors, packed into eyes that are large and cylindrical in shape, providing them unsurpassed night vision. Some species of owls have night vision that is an amazing one hundred times more sensitive than our own. Their eyes are also so large that they fill their sockets to the point that owls can’t move their eyes. While this is a disadvantage to some point, the eyes are set wide apart on their faces and provide terrific binocular vision. This inability to move their eyes is made up for by being able to turn their heads a great deal farther than humans. More on that in a moment.

Finally, owls have ears that are placed at different heights on the sides of their heads. The pronounced asymmetry of the ears gives owls extremely accurate hearing and it grants them a phenomenal talent to locate prey in darkness and under the shroud of vegetation or even snow. Owls frequently fine-tune the location of sounds by pivoting and bobbing their heads. Now you know why owls are often nodding their heads from side to side! They are able to turn their heads 270 degrees on deceptively long necks, which is 90 degrees more than we are capable of doing. Allow me to take this opportunity to dispel another old wives’ tale; you cannot make an owl wring its own neck by walking in a circle around it. I never really understood why anyone would want to try that, but let me save you the trouble.

The next time I visit with you, we will take a little closer look at each of the four species found in this county. All four species are quite incredible and fill necessary niches in our ecosystems. When we are done with our visit with owls, I hope there will be a little better perception of what owls do and a great deal less misunderstanding and irrationality about what they don’t.

(Josh Arrants has worked with birds throughout South Carolina for more than 12 years, specializing in the management of the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, as well as songbirds and birds of prey.

A graduate of the University of South Carolina, his research interests are the influence of nature, particularly birds, on human culture. Arrants has lectured on birds all the way from Texas to California; from Florida to Montana.)

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