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Nocturnal bird a rich source of lore

Large round eyes add to the eerie sense of unease humans often attribute to owls. 1 / 2
Some owls species, such as this spotted owl, have coal black irises, which likely contributes to our feeling of unease around these mysterious birds.2 / 2

Twice in the last 10 days I've heard from friends telling me of their encounters with owls in the dark. Neither one actually saw the animals, but both definitively heard calls from the nocturnal creatures. One went so far as to describe her brief experience as "creepy," a common description fixed upon this group of birds and one felt by humankind for thousands of years.

Since we emerged from caves I imagine that owls have been a rich source of elements feeding our emotions and fears, our mythologies and our art, our darkest beliefs and our finest ones. One of the oldest bird depictions ever found is on a wall of the Chauvet Cave in the south of France. Without a doubt it's an owl, and it's over 30,000 years old.

It's impossible to know what was on the mind of the early French artist when he or she created the work, but it illustrates just how long these strange birds have filled our collective psyche with an admixture of disparate beliefs.

All manner of woe and evil has been ascribed to owls throughout our history. Folktales and superstitions are filled with negativity surrounding these birds. Harbingers of death, of bad tidings, of pestilence, of famine, you name it. I suppose it's not hard to imagine why. They're largely active at night. And darkness is a place that makes us uncomfortable.

Most owls are indeed nocturnal; hunting, courting, nest building, and carrying out all their life activities at night. It's this characteristic that immediately puts the birds at odds with humankind. Darkness, since the beginning of history, has been a time of fear and unknown for us, a part of the day to shun and lock the door to, a sinister few hours when only ne'er-do-wells, vampires, and ghosts should be out.

There's the voices too. Different owl species are capable of a wide variety of weird vocalizations. Everything from hisses and hoots, to low moans, screeches, even screams. Hear these strange noises in the dark and one can understand how a person's imagination can take brief excursions from reality.

Finally, I think owls' eyes play a role in how we view them as well. Huge and round, they seem to stare us down, maybe even look right through us. Most other birds have eye placement toward the sides of their heads, not the owls. Theirs face forward on flat facial disks, vaguely but queerly resembling human faces. And those species with all-black irises seem even more capable of malevolence. Who doesn't remember Captain Quint in the movie Jaws describing those of the great white shark, "...it's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes."

Despite the negative connotations and unfair qualities we have attributed to owls throughout the centuries, they've somehow endeared themselves with us and found their way into our cultures in positive ways as well.

I'm not entirely sure how, but owls are thought to be wise. The belief is likely to have stemmed from ancient Greece, where the goddess of reason and intellect was Athena. She is often symbolized as an owl.

Owls also find themselves as common subjects of our art. For example, next time you find yourself in Manhattan, look up at the buildings every now and then. You'll be surprised by how many architectural sculptures depict owls. It's also likely you will get a Christmas card soon with an illustration of an owl on the front. Not so terrifying I would say.

I've known a few people who collect figurine versions of the bird. Every inch of their shelf space is occupied by carved owls of every sort. Somehow I doubt these people view them as foreboding creatures. Instead they are revered.

Yet despite our 21st century knowledge of the natural world I believe we will forever struggle with superstition and fear, particularly when it originates from creatures of the night. It's our inability to see into darkness that will always make room for wild imaginings. We often fill our intellectual voids with unpleasant, even macabre ideas. Unfortunately and unjustly, owls fit that role conveniently and have for a long time.

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