The House of Owls by Tony Angell. Yale University Press, 2015
There was an old owl he lived in an oak.
The more he knew the less he spoke.
The less he spoke the more he heard.
O, if men where all like that wise old bird.
Owls have been the subject, at times victim, of folklore world-wide. We talk about a night owl, being a person who commonly stays up late. You should be flattered with the sobriquet “wise old owl” because it is saluting your ‘quiet’ wisdom. Owls are associated with sobriety; children were given an infusion of an owl egg to ward off insobriety at a later age. The bird was often viewed as the sign of doom; “I heard the owl call my name” associates its call with approaching death. But conversely, the presence of an owl can be a sign of impending good fortune.
Most of this folklore is based on actual owl behavior. Tony Angell describes but also illustrates owl behavior with his striking drawings.
Most owls are nocturnal, hunting by moonlight, even starlight. But they often use the fading light of sunsets and the sparse light before sunrise to look for their major food source – small rodents: pocket gophers, voles, rats, and mice. They also consume small to medium-sized birds, frogs, even smaller owls.
Owls don’t build their own nests. Rather they mostly use nests formerly occupied by crows, hawks, flickers, and the larger woodpeckers. These can be found in snags of mature trees but also on ledges of rarely used structures, old Midwestern barns, for example, where owl nests can be found in the rafters. However, Angell was able to build a nesting box that worked. A male owl came looking for a site, his nest box met the owl’s approval. He then called for the female to have a look and pass judgment.
It is easy to slip into anthropomorphism when describing bird behavior. Angell talks about owl emotions. Owls are said to express anger and fright, which is easier to accept than their “satisfaction” or “pleasure” in flight. They have long courtships and are monogamous with long-term pair bonding. They can breed at two years of age. Owl eggs require a relatively long incubation and chicks enjoy a long fledgling stage as well. And during these months, the male feeds the female and their brood. You can find flickerings of human behavior here if you wish.
The owl’s eyes are their most important sense organ, and Angell spends time explaining how they work. They are structured to be sensitive to diminished light. The eyes protrude out from the facial disk and that allows them better binocular vision. Owls can swivel their heads quickly through 270 degrees, allowing them to respond to sound or movement without moving their body. Humans at best have a 180-degree head-turning ability. The owl’s iris can close down the pupil to a pinpoint. And their pupil can quickly become enlarged to gather more light. The northern saw-whet owl’s two eyes can differ in degrees of dilation, one being fully contracted, the other fully dilated.
The author speculates that owls seem to be able to hold in their memory three-dimensional maps of their home ground and can rely on that memory to strike at birds when the light would be otherwise inadequate. He has a drawing that sequences an owl descending to strike a prey. It dives rapidly and silently and pulls up just before striking, using its talons to grab the prey.
There are 217 different owl species world-wide and the list is growing. They are mostly spread over the temperate zones. There are two families, one composed of barn owls only and the second all other species. Their fossil record goes back to the Miocene Epoch. At one time owls were much bigger; the fossil of a barn owl recovered in the Caribbean suggests an animal three times the size of today’s barn owl.
There is talk of owl habit destruction and endangerment, and hence diminished populations. The fate of each North American species is considered in The House of Owls; some are more threatened than others. Some, particularly the barred owl, have been doing well. Owls seem to survive in the fragmented forest and even in urban environments better than do most native forest dwellers. On dog walks I often hear the hoot of a barred owl roosting on a telephone pole in the neighboring grade school yard.
Most owl species are migratory, although they do not migrate the vast distances that some birds travel to-and-from breeding grounds. Some owls, for example, move a few miles from higher mountain elevations to the valleys below. Less is known of owl migration because it is nocturnal. Last winter, snowy owls, normally denizens of northern Canada, came as far south as Little Talbot Island, Florida and were observed foraging for mice in the sand dunes.
For over a quarter century, Tony Angell and his family spent their early evenings observing the western screech owls that inhabited their nesting box outside a window of their family home. Perhaps they then enjoyed a tale of the owl and the pussy-cat who went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat.