Owls have long been recognized in folklore, for better or worse. Depending on the culture, its values and their connection to nature, owls symbolized different, often conflicting concepts. The most common perception of owls is that they are wise. I remember a rhyme from summer camp, whose author I can't find. "A wise old owl sat in an oak. The more he saw the less he spoke. The less he spoke the more he heard. Why can't we be like that wise old bird?"
In ancient Athens, an owl was the guardian of the Acropolis and often associated with the, Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Athenians thought so much of the bird they put it on their money.
Owls have also been seen as protectors. If an owl flew over Greek soldiers before a battle, they took it as a sign of victory. The Japanese place owl pictures and figurines in homes to ward off famine or disease.
With the good comes the bad. In many cultures from Ancient Egypt and India to Africa and North America, owls were seen as bad omens and harbingers of death. In Shakespeare's "Macbeth," Lady Macbeth interprets the cry of the owl as a sign that her husband was murdered. "It was the cry of the owl that shriek'd the fatal bellman" she proclaims. If you've ever heard the high pitched, scratchy call of a barn owl, it is easy to understand the bird's association with evil things.
Because I am curious about nature and people's relationships with nature, I find these historic attitudes interesting. But the importance of one's perception of the natural world shouldn't be underrated. Last year, I came across an article in a 2010 New York State Conservationist about the changing perceptions of owls. The article described a record from 1900 in New York City of school boys yelling and throwing stones at a sleeping barred owl. The rocks became a menace to windows as well as the heads of neighbors and passersby, so the owl was shot by police as an unwelcome visitor. Attitudes directly affect behavior. And education directly affects attitude. However, as any parent or teacher knows, social norms also affect attitude.
What is it about owls in pop culture today? You can buy owl anything. In a quick trip around a large store in town where you can buy just about anything, I found an owl pattern or shape on the following items: T-shirts, pajamas, purses, fabric, lamps, posters, necklaces, Halloween decorations, lollypops, greeting cards, clocks, notebooks, hats, scarves and toys. I'm not criticizing. I contemplated being an owl for Halloween, and I own owl earrings. I just wonder; why does it seem like there are stylized owls everywhere these days? I won't tease myself and think that all these consumers are buying owl paraphernalia because they "Give a Hoot and Don't Pollute." Is it the prominent forward facing eyes, the simple design or is it something more? Why are they so cool?
The funny thing is the difference between the cartoon owls on decorations and the real thing is like the difference between a teddy bear and a real black bear. Owls are not particularly wise, benevolent, evil or cuddly. Those are human traits that we impose on the birds. It is more appropriate that we think of owls as lean, mean eating machines. Like a well-trained, well-equipped hunter, owls are designed to hunt down prey and kill it. For many, maybe that's where they get a bad reputation. But everything has to eat. From their sharp eyesight and fine-tuned sense of hearing to their piercing bill and claws, owls are designed to eat other animals.
Owls seem to have permeated our culture in a way that other birds haven't. I've seen an owl pin on someone who was proclaiming their dislike of the outdoors. "But you're sporting a bird pin on your jacket," I say. "Yeah, isn't it cute?" The pin was cute. And I'm pretty sure I've used the same word to describe a real saw whet owl. But they are also incredible hunters that capture live mice, swallow them whole and later cough up the bits they couldn't digest in the form of a tightly packed pellet. Where's the glittery T-shirt that portrays that?
Everyone has a need to be connected with nature. It is in our bones, and we can't live without it. Maybe having a purple and pink striped cartoon owl pin could be a start to learning more about the natural world. Come down to Audubon and learn more at Owl Day on Saturday, Nov. 10, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Mark Baker, a NY State Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator, will be there with live owls. You can dissect an owl pellet to find out what owls eat, make owl crafts and learn more about these nocturnal hunters. The cost is $7 per person, $5 for Friends of the Nature Center and includes building admission. If you want to see what owls might be around Audubon at night, make reservations for the Owl Prowl that night from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. We'll explore Audubon's trails as the sun goes down and call for some common owls. It'll be a hoot.
Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn until dusk and the building is open Mondays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Sundays we are open from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and are closed Tuesday through Friday. Call 569-2345 or visit jamestownaudubon.org for more information.
Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.