Owls that foretell the future

Posted by on Nov 17, 2015 in Animals & wildlife
Owls that foretell the future

It’s one thing to find the perfect place to hide away, it’s another thing to discover the bird and capture it in an image that is simply beautiful. Patience and the eye of Michelangelo – “for the hands execute, but the eye judges” – accompanied the photo camera of nature and wildlife photographer Graham McGeorge, who shot this prize winning picture of the Eastern Screech Owl. Bird and tree became one, the roosting owl blends into the tree in the same way as Frank Lloyd Wrights’ Fallingwater unifies the house and the waterfall. In his book The Disappearing City (1932) in which he proposed Broadacre City, a suburban development concept, the architect suggests: “The outside may come inside and the inside go outside.”


Owls are admired and feared as well

Owls are birds from the order Strigiformes which includes about 200 species. These are sorted in two basic groups, the barn owls (16 species) and the true owls. Owls are creatures of the night. These mostly solitary living birds of prey hunt when darkness surrounds us, granting them the advantage of the night and the absence of competition. A level playing field exists therefore with other daytime avian hunters such as the eagle and the hawk.

Masters of the silent flight they are, their wings designed to minimize the sound. Owls manage to fly just inches away from their prey without being detected. It is the structure of an owls wing that inspires the design for quieter aircraft as well as windturbines. This year’s June the owl’s unique skill to fly in silence made it to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) conference in Dallas, USA. Imagine the brand new Dreamliner aircraft flying as silent as this feathered model. It sounds like a daydream.

The owl as a creature of the night, the bird of evil. Throughout history, owls have been admired and feared. In ancient Greek mythology it was the goddess Athena who choose the owl as her favourite bird; the owl was believed to have protective powers as well. For that reason it accompanied the Greek armies going to war, the soldiers saw the signs of victory in an owl flying over the battlegrounds. The Romans on the other hand seemed to have been more afraid of owls. The hoot of an owl meant imminent death; this alleged forebodings about the near future were to proof justified. Julius Ceasar, Augustus and Agrippina, among others, heard the feared hoot and died shortly thereafter, it is said.

Sleepy Japanese owl in magnolia tree

Owl in magnolia tree, Kubota Shunman, ca.1890 – ca.1900. Collection Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (RP-P-1991-506)

The snowy owl and lemmings

Unlike most owls, the snowy owl is diurnal, they are active and hunt both day and night. The white plumage of this owl corresponds with its habitat, the Arctic tundra. Here they breed, the clutch size – 3 to 11 eggs – depends on the availability of food. Birth control is part of their planning the future because in lean times a pair of owls may not breed at all. Wise birds. Their preferred meal is lemmings, an adult snowy owl may put away a lot of lemmings, in fact more than 1600 a year. Although these quantities suggest abundance, the situation is unsettled and this alone is reason for concern, say experts. A change in the Arctic landscape caused by global warming shows a tendency that the lemming populations  have dropped in Scandinavia and Greenland.

It all makes sense. The moss and grass on which the lemmings feed now have to compete with newcomers like willow sprouts and shrubs. And the texture of snowfall is changing as well, meaning less fluffy snow and more soggy, wet areas, which makes it hard for the lemmings to go undercover to survive. Last summer it should have been a lemming year in Sweden (the peak is once every four years) but no, we didn’t see or hear a single one. In Norway, the lemming population cycles have flattened out since 1995. In an article on the 2013 snowy owl invasion throughout North America, Joe Smith observes (referring to earlier research by K.L. Kausrud):

“The corresponding cycles of bird reproductive success have also flattened out. And populations of arctic foxes and snowy owls in Norway have declined dramatically. Predator declines are likely due to the lack of dramatic peaks of lemming abundance.”

Global warming is a fact which cannot be denied. Whether or not this will influence the snowy owl population is up to time’s debate, because the Canadian high Arctic might see increasing snow depth according to researchers. Climate change affects the one area adversely while another part of the world gains something.


Sweden’s red list of endangered species

The great grey owl, in Sweden called the lappugla (Strix nebulosa) is on the 2015 red list of endangered species, as well as the barn owl or Swedish tornuggla (Tyto alba). This red list, produced by the Swedish Species Information Center and revised every fifth year, accounts for the relative risk of species to go go extinct in Sweden. Not included are the snowy owl and the Tengmalm’s owl. But quite a lot of mammals are, the list containing twenty species includes the arctic fox (fjällräv), the wolf, the otter, the wolverine (järv), the lynx (lodjur), and a newcomer: the brown bear.


Tengmalm’s owl and voles

During the last three decades the number of boreal owls (commonly known as Tengmalm’s owls, after the Swedish naturalist Peter Gustaf Tengmalm) has shown a dramatic decline in the northern parts of Sweden. The Department of Wildlife, Fish and Environmental Studies of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences raised the red flag in 2010, when research data showed that the number of occupied nestboxes had declined by 70 per cent since 1980. The bird is as shy as it is evasive to humans, enough reason to choose the difficult accessible forested taiga areas as the preferred habitat. They almost exclusively feed on voles. And there are less voles too which could mean less boreal owls. It seems a logical explanation. But is is not only a general decline in the number of voles caused by milder winters. Landscapes do change as well as a result of forestry. And in addition, it could be so that the owls just do not like to occupy old boxes, a question to be answered in ongoing research on vole and lemming dynamics.


Sometimes funny, sometimes sad

Like most children I thought owls were funny because they looked that way. Later on I believed them to be wise. Two characteristics commonly attributed to owls. They can appear a little sad and austere at the same time as well.


owlet seeking shelter from the rain under a mushroom

Owlet seeking shelter. Image by Tanja Brandt


The horned owl sat motionless on a branch, staring at me. Obviously this bird was waiting for something to happen and at the same time, in quiet resignation it told the story of its life. A feeling of sadness came over me, as if by sharing unhappiness the total amount would be diminished. I wanted to unburden the owl but could not. It was fenced in, residing in an owl and bird of prey sanctuary watching the time go by and following with its eyes only whatever happened outside its cage. A small sign conveyed its personal background – this Eurasian eagle-owl was donated by a zoo, its length was 67 cm, its weight 3.8 kg and she listened to the name Dara. A wry comment on the Celtic origins of this name, derived from the element ‘darragh’ meaning oak or oak tree. The ultimate wishing-I-was-there of an owl wrapped in a name.


Let’s return to Frank Lloyd Wright. He would always capture the sun as a first step in a design that would suit the site, rather than change the site to suit the house. An animal’s brain will handle matters more as practicalities of course. So it does. The best place to call your home is custom-designed, by nature.



References and more reading


Featured image: Master of Disguise. Courtesy of Graham McGeorge.

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