The American writer Henry David Thoreau said, “I rejoice that there are owls.” I do too! So I thought I would say a few words today about God’s gift of owls.
Owls are found almost everywhere on the planet except Antarctica and a few remote
islands. Though they tend to be solitary, a group of owls is called a parliament, a word that somehow seems to fit them. Owls are symbols of wisdom in many cultures—probably because of their almost human-like face. But owls actually are not very high on the bird intelligence scale. Crows, jays, and magpies are smarter than owls.
Owls are nocturnal birds of prey. They are very efficient hunters because of a number of physical characteristics. First of all, they have excellent hearing. An owl can detect a mouse squeak a half a mile away. Owls also have great sight, but they are far-sighted, so things that are near are blurred for them. (I guess they couldn’t read the eye chart when it was held too close!) Another remarkable characteristic of owls is their ability to turn their heads 270 degrees in either direction, thus enabling them to look over their shoulder without turning their body. (See how far you can turn your head!) This ability aids owls in their quest for food.
But one of the most notable features of owls is the design of their feathers. Owl feathers, unlike the feathers of most birds, have fluffy edges that muffle the sound of their beating wings. I saw this feature dramatized when I visited a Colorado nature center that cared for injured raptors. When the guide held a large hawk’s feather in his hand and quickly moved it up and down in the air, we heard a soft swishing sound. But when he did the same thing with an owl’s feather, we heard absolutely nothing. The flight of an owl is virtually silent. Wildlife writer Warner Shedd calls owls “nature’s original stealth aircraft.”
In some cultures owls are associated with death and misfortune. This association probably arises out of their nocturnal activities and their cries, which range from sadly melancholic to irritatingly screeching. In ancient mythology, owls were often companions for goddesses. In the story of King Arthur, Merlin’s owl, Archimedes, helps teach the young Arthur the way of the birds. More recently, Harry Potter has a companion owl named Hedwig.
Consider yourself fortunate if you have ever seen an owl in the wild, for they are good at
hiding. I’ve spotted only a few of them in my lifetime. Once when I was walking near a woods on the first evening of a retreat, a large brown owl swooped down right in front of me and then swooped up and landed in a tree. So I got a good look at him (or her). My retreat director told me this was a very favorable omen for my retreat—and it turned out to be just that. A couple of times on a winter afternoon I have spotted an owl nestled in an evergreen tree sound asleep. Once a small owl even perched on an outside window sill at our provincial center, delighting all who happened to spot her (or him). When I lived in rural Virginia, I often heard the plaintive Whooo! Whooo! Whooo! of an owl as I lay in bed at night. I found the sound amazingly beautiful and surprisingly comforting.
I mentioned we seldom actually see owls in the wild. At the end of this blog (after the song) I’ve put a short video of a young owl learning to fly in a woman’s backyard. She and her son observed the process for about about 3 hours, she says, but the condensed video is only about 8 minutes.
Let us conclude this little reflection on owls with this simple prayer:
God of all Creation, we thank you for owls. We thank you for their presence all over the world… We thank you for their beauty…whether white, gray, brown or somewhere in between… whether solid, striped, or variegated. We thank you for their variety in size… from huge to tiny…We thank you for their amazing gifts: their exceptional hearing, their superior eyesight, their flexible neck, their silent flight. But most of all, we thank you for their uncanny ability to own the night… And we thank you for their mystery. Our earthly family is richer because of owls… And we know: even a glimpse of one of them is pure gift. Amen.
I chose “All Things Bright an Beautiful” (video by John Rutter) for our song today. Although it has no owls in it, it does have that other bird with eyes that face forward: the penguin!
A baby owl learning to fly:
Did you learn anything new about owls?
Have you ever experienced an owl?
What other animals are you especially grateful for–and why?
If you watched the second video, what emotions did you experience as you watched the baby owl learning to fly?