The Hidden Lives of Owls
A sixty-seven-million-year odyssey of science and myth.
By Maria Popova
“Sunlight, moonlight, twilight, starlight — gloaming at the close of day, and an owl calling,” Walter de la Mare wrote in his “Dream Song”. “When shadows cool and owls call,” Nikki Giovanni writes a century later, “how can there be no Heaven.”
Owls have haunted the human mind for as long as we have shared land and sky with them. They have done for our terrestrial and aerial imagination what the octopus has done for the aquatic — no other feathered creature has inspired our poetic reverie, our myth-making, and our scientific curiosity in equal measure. That sundry enchantment is what scientist and nature writer Leigh Calvez explores in The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds (public library).
Calvez maps the cultural stature of owls in a global atlas of mythology:
The owl’s long association with the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, gave rise to the Burrowing Owl’s scientific name, Athene cunicularia. For centuries, the Ainu people of northeastern Japan have revered the Blakiston’s Fish Owl, the heaviest owls in the world weighing as much as ten pounds, as “the Emperor of the Night” or “the God That Protects the Village.” The Mayans wore owl amulets upside down so that the protective owl spirit could look up at the person it was protecting. In Kazakhstan, there exists a mountain range where only female shamans go to connect with the spirit of the owl. The Scandinavian Sami people believe that owls are good luck. And the Native American Navajo believe owl and coyote hold the balance of day and night.
As alchemy gave rise to chemistry, superstition is often the gateway through which an object of curiosity enters the domain of science. Calvez complements the cultural history of owl mythology with the evolutionary history and taxonomy of these strange and wondrous birds:
For more than sixty-seven million years, owls have roamed the earth, flying, hunting, and raising their families in the dark. As the taxonomic order Strigiformes, owls split from the evolutionary branch of the raptors and evolved to not only survive in but thrive in nearly every habitat on the planet, from extreme polar regions to high desert steppe and from deep primeval forests to the farms and neighborhoods associated with human civilization. Owls are divided into two families: Tytonidae, barn owls, the oldest owl species with a heart-shaped face, and Strigidae, typical or true owls, with a round face.
The features that lend owls their singular allure, Calvez points out, are the result of the unique evolutionary adaptations, millennia in the making, that coronated them kings of the night — the large, yellow, forward-facing eyes, tubular and immovable, that made it necessary for the owl’s head to rotate 270 degrees; the nocturnal vision honed into a German Expressionist masterpiece of evolution by eyes endowed with more black-and-white detecting rods than color ones; the facial feathers fanned into a sonic satellite dish dispersing sound to the unlevel ears, one positioned higher than the other to help the owl locate its prey in three dimensions; the pivoting fourth talon, a kind of opposable thumb that can point both backward and forward to ensure the deadliest grip.
In the remainder of The Hidden Lives of Owls, Calvez explores the particular marvels of each of the major owl species — from how the local lemming population determines the number of eggs Snowy Owls lay each mating season to the communal roosting practices of Long- and Short-eared Owls to the astonishing feather mechanics of their silent flight. Complement it with these gorgeous nineteenth-century drawings of owls, then soar into the world of another fascinating raptor: the hawk.
Published March 13, 2018