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Birds of a Feather - Owls of delight

Owls of delight

Story and photographs by Don Cowie

Throughout the history of mankind and across many races and cultures owls have been made the subject of folklore and mystery conjuring up diverse feelings and beliefs ranging from fear and foreboding to utmost respect. In many African tribes and cultures, they are to this day viewed as harbingers of bad luck or death. An owl settling on the roof of one’s house is regarded by many as signalling the death of a family member.

Modern western cultures tend to depict owls as being birds of wisdom we trace this back to the Greek god Athena the goddess of wisdom who had an owl as a symbol John Keats the poet refers, however, refers to “ the owls hated screech”. Ancient European and Eastern civilisations had a wide range of views on these birds. In ancient Rome Pliny and Virgil regarded owls as funeral birds and their presence as an evil omen.

Native American tribes also had diverse views, the Pawnee looked to owls as protectors, but the majority of tribes regarded their presence as a bad omen in much the same way as their African and European counterparts. This almost universal fear of these magnificent, mostly nocturnal birds of prey was and still is totally ill-founded and definitely not deserved. These supreme masters of silent flight launch themselves from their lookout points into the darkness, descending on their unsuspecting prey like avian versions of stealth bombers.

The anatomy of owls has evolved to enable them to function at optimum levels in the dark of night. They are very light birds with their skeleton making up only around 8% of its body weight and having some of their larger bones hollow helps in this respect.

The head turning ability of owls is well known (270 degrees left or right from the forward facing position.) This is achieved by having twice as many vertebrae as mammals including man, fourteen as opposed to seven.

The head also rotates from a single occipital articulation humans have two this allows the head to pivot easily rather like a ballet dancer on one foot.

Owls have exceptional eyesight as one would expect of all night birds and the eyes are perhaps their most striking feature. Large and forward facing they make up around 1-5% of the bird’s body weight. This enables them to see primarily in binocular vision, unlike most other bird species. The orbital sockets in the skull are large and the eyes cone shaped and because of this they cannot move the eyes within the socket and are thus restricted to being able to look straight ahead. To be efficient at collecting light owl eyes have large corneas and pupils and by being able to significantly enlarge the size of the pupil a greater amount of light can enter the eye, large numbers of rod cells allow this light to be collected with great efficiency.

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