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That wise old owl. Certainly a commendation, but why is the owl linked with wisdom? And what are some common misconceptions about this creature of the night?
There are more than 140 species of owl spread across the planet. In fact, they can be found on every continent bar one – Antarctica. They range in size from the tiny pygmy owl to the great horned owl. They make their homes in all sorts of terrain – from prairies and deserts to rain forests and arctic tundra.
The aura of wisdom surrounding the owl originates from it’s distinctive facial features. With it’s big head, large round eyes that feature an intensely focused gaze the owl has from ancient times been credited with mythical wisdom. In fact, it was the sacred bird of Pallas Athene, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom. The truth of the owl’s unwavering stare, however, has nothing to do with it’s mental prowess. The eyes are set in sockets that prevent them from swivelling or rolling about.
It is commonly believed that owls cannot see well in daylight and that their eyesight is much better in the dark. This is, however, not the case. Owls have excellent vision in the daytime. In extremely dim light at night, nocturnal owls have retinas packed with rods enabling them to see. In total darkness, however, they are unable to see at all. In such situations, the ears of the owl take over and act to compensate for the lost vision. The barn owl actually has a sense of directional hearing that is more accurate than any other land animal studied.
Owls have very flexible necks which allow them to turn their heads up to 270 degrees. This allows it to even see what is going on directly behind itself. The feathers of the owl are another marvel. They are especially designed to be silent during flight. Because they are soft and downy, the wind makes no noise as it passes over them. Additionally, the barbs on the feathers are of varying sizes, and this aids in the silent flight. In fact, the feathers of the owl are so aerodynamically designed that they have been keenly studied by space engineers. All of this allows the owl to swoop down silently on it’s prey.
The owl has throughout history been sinonymous with bad omens and heralded as harbingers of doom. English Poet Geoffrey Chaucer of the 14th Century wrote that the owl was ‘a prophet of woe and mischance. They have, however, proven to be a useful ally to farmers by eradicating rodents and pests that prey on their crops.
The owl, then, has developed a reputation that is somewhat undeserved – firstly as a fountain of wisdom and secondly as bringer of bad tidings. The truth is that it is a wonderfully designed silent bird of prey – with some outstanding physical attributes.