Owls, the most treasured choice of photographers in bird kingdom
As a doctor naturalist, I always wonder by knowing the most fascinating and enigmatic birds, Owls. Once we can take to our heels of the mystical fantasies encircling this unique bird and learns profound about this avian lives, they indeed enthuse us. They excite us with their remarkable sensory powers, hunting techniques, lifestyle; as great contributors to the ecosystem, the extant diverse indigenous species of its kind. Throughout human history, owls have been revered and dreaded, liked and disliked, viewed as wise and unwise, boon and bane and its association with witchcraft and medicine, and as a harbinger of birth and death in many civilizations.
These nocturnal birds have suffered poaching and persecution significantly since time immemorial because of the mysteries surrounding them. Watching the owls in their natural habitat is an exciting experience for both birders and non-birders alike. Is it because of the big, intriguing eyes? Is it the way the heads can swivel? Or the fact that they are mainly nocturnal? Why are they so special to a bird watcher and environmentalist? Every birder who observes owls needs to have special considerations and an eye for details to succeed in their journey.
For a birder, photographing an owl has always been a treasured choice. Owls are, no doubt, a stunning creature, although folk tales talks eerie about them. There are numerous owls, probably around 250 species, and each one of them seems to have its own distinct legend and lore. Owls featured prominently in the myths and legends of many cultures. Some cultures portray them as an embodiment of wisdom and helpfulness and even with prophesy prowess. In contrast, others consider them a sign of evil and doom to come as they inhabit dark, desolate and profane places. Owls and humans are connected from time immemorial and were known and documented in Sumerian tablets dating back from 2300-2000BC.
Owls have long been cultural symbols and found in cave paintings in France and Egypt. There are cultures where owls are considered sacred, especially amongst Australian aborigines, but considered signs of death in Native American tribes. For Appache people, dreaming of an owl signifies, death is approaching, whereas certain cultures believed that burrowing owls acted as warriors' protective spirits. A sect of people in Japan thinks owls were the souls of people and should not be harmed because if the owl was killed, the person whose soul the owl carried would also die.
Some cultures believe in the re-birth of a person as an owl. Greek and Romans believed that witches would turn themselves into owls, and in this form they would come and suck the blood of babies. In India, an owl sighting at night and its eerie call filled with foreboding and apprehension mean at death was imminent or some evil is at hand. This is even though owls are the vehicle of the goddess of wealth, Lakhmi. In some other cultures, owls were considered messengers of witches or warn of a witch's approach. In the Middle East, owl is associated with death, destruction and ruin and believed to be the souls of dead people who had died un-avenged. They believed that seeing an owl in the way to battle foretells the bloody battle with many casualties. Hooting of an owl forecasts a bad day in the Middle East.
Studies have shown that they are far from the most intelligent of those that fly, as they have an air of wisdom that made them occupy unique place in the world of literature. The owl was known as the harbinger of bad things and doom throughout Europe. Hence, they appear as a symbol of death and destruction in several popular plays and poems. This is evident in William Shakespeare's play, Macbeth and Julius Caesar where owl's premonition of death has been described. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar even had his death predicted by the hooting of the owl. Nailing an owl to the door was considered a way to keep evil at bay. This tradition actually began in ancient Rome, after owls foretold Julius Caesar's deaths and many other emperors.
Early Christian church considered owls as a symbol of evil and demonic possession. Owls were also the central character of many fictions. Owl post was wizarding system of sending messages or items using owls as carriers for Harry Potter. Besides the owl, post-office individuals and organizations with their own owls used them as the mail carriers. Harry Potter's owl Hedwig was used as his primary means of communicating with his friends and godfather. It is striking how owls appear in fiction, particularly for children.
The famous character, little owl in the folksongs is intimately associated with the Greek Goddess Athena and Roman Goddess Minerva - the goddess of prophecy and wisdom. The Greek goddess, Athena, symbolized with wisdom and is often portrayed with an owl as a companion. The specific owl that represented Athena was called the Little owl, Athena noctua. Lilith, the goddess of death, has talons for feet, wears a headdress of horns and is flanked by owls. She is probably the inspiration for Athena. When the Athenians won the battle of Marathon from the Persians in 490 BC, the warrior goddess assumed the shape of an owl and led them from above. Some think that Athena may be a descendant of a goddess associated with birds. Some others feel the way owls can see in the dark may be linked to wisdom. Whatever be the reason, owls were considered by the Greeks as a protector unlike the Romans.
Another misconception associated with that owl meat is an aphrodisiac, and many barn owls are killed for this reason. Owls nocturnal activity and its amazing ability to rotate is neck to extra ordinary degrees were probably the reason for these superstitions.
These are carnivorous birds with beaks and claws, with a rounded large head with face feathers forming the so-called facial disc. They have directional hearing, with asymmetric ears, one ear placed higher than the other. This asymmetry helps them locate the prey in complete darkness, as one ear perceives the sound before the other. Owls are famous for their exceptional eyesight. Their eyes allow perfect estimation of depth and give them a three- dimensional vision. Unlike humans whose eyes are spherical, their eyes are tubular due to the cornea and lens's large size. This large size prevents them from moving the eyes in their sockets, further compromised by the sclerotic bone plate, which impedes movement. The eyes can rotate only one degree. They get a three-dimensional view of the prey by turning their head around, a whopping 270 degrees. They have an upright posture and flattened facial disc which helps in magnifying the sounds ten times to help them hear noises that humans cannot decipher. They have specialized feathers with fringes of varying softness to muffle the sound when they fly. These birds are heavily camouflaged and difficult to visualize in their natural habitat.
All owls are predators depending on other animals for food. Hares, mice and other rodents that are active at night are exposed to predation at that time. For the same reason, the owl population depends on food availability, particularly during their breeding time. Owls exhibits preferences for certain food items over others. A large proportion of owls are nocturnal, but not all. Few owls are diurnal, active during the day, and some are more active during dawn and dusk. Mostly, owls do not migrate and can be traced in the same territory throughout the year.
Owls are no more a sign of bad luck and they are good at doing what they need to do to survive in the wild. Like all predators, owls play an important role in nature by removing prey populations that are considered surplus. Owls that feed in agricultural areas benefit humans by killing large numbers of rodents that otherwise destroy the crops. Unfortunately, they are threatened by toxic chemicals in forestry and agriculture. A pair of barn owls hunt an average of 2000 mice a year, being therefore beneficial to humans. Moreover, unscrupulous industrial and agricultural development degrade most owls' habitat, causing reduction in their population and disappearance in many areas. Large and appropriate habitat areas to be set aside as ecological park to protect the owls. This must be done for them to sustain their population in their natural habitat.
Environmentalists should find these magnificent birds and make them know their immediate surroundings banishing the misconceptions. In many countries owls are included in Schedule 1 of wildlife Act. Owl population needs to be collected and preserved through call-response surveys, which is an effective way to census many bird species. They have to be protected in their natural habitat to prevent its imminent extinction due to superstitions and from the hands of unscrupulous poachers. Protective measures are taken collectively by environment societies and activists in coordination with other interested parties like birders and NGOs. Let us be united with a concerted effort to protect this fascinating bird species from enthusing us in the years to come continually.