Who's coming home to roost?
There are over 200 species of owls and because their principal food is rodents, they often live near humans. Their huge, immobile eyes help them see in the darkness and they have a third eyelid which cleans its eyes for protection and enhanced vision. Their asymmetrical ears enable them to locate sounds at considerable distance. Exorcist-like, they can spin their heads 270 degrees. Because their bodies are considerably smaller than their wings, they fly noiselessly.
Views of owls are conflicting. In the Greco-Roman era, owls were linked with goddesses Athena and Minerva and associated with the moon and feminine power. They represented wisdom — not the "Jeopardy!"-smart kind. Rather they had spiritual wisdom correlated with insight and compassion. Hindus and Hopi Indians see them as sacred. In Japan, owl charms are prevalent. Owls bring luck and protect them from suffering. Inuit see owls as guides. Mysterious and associated with the night, owls can also be seen as frightening. Different cultures view the owl as related to dying. Owl cries preceded the death of a number of prominent Romans, including Julius Caesar. Sections of Africa and the Middle East connect owls with passing to the next life. Native American tribes associate owls as harbingers of death. Mictlantecutli, the Aztec god of death, wore a robe with feathers of an owl.
Venerated and vilified, owls are fascinating. Owls have been visiting in our woods in Sunderland. They seem to want to communicate with us. One waits at the turn of our driveway constantly calling. His head moves in a circle as he issues his cry. Another is perched on a tree limb facing us as we come out of the back door to walk the dogs. Eerie. Last night he flew over to a tree nearer our porch. He positions himself so he can watch our movements. I consulted the Cornell Ornithology Lab site and downloaded the Audubon Owl App, which detailed their habits and habitats and revealed owls make many more unusual sounds than hoots. Who knew? Our owls appear to be northern hawk owls, Their cry is haunting—a combination of a squeaking gear and a hissing snake. I first heard this call at the crest of our driveway. I stood still. I turned around. I wish I hadn't read about the barred owls implicated in a murder case in North Carolina and attacks on joggers in Oregon. While these are rare, a screech owl in New Jersey who would dive bomb my neighbors and me is a clear memory. I felt threatened. Is this owl just alerting me of his presence? Is he warning me to keep my distance? Although they seem to be fair weather friends as they are not present when it is raining, our owls have been coming closer to the house and staying longer. I joined them outside. The Cree believed that if you failed to respond to an owl cry, you would soon die. I imitated their call. I butchered it, but I tried. First one answered, then two, then three. The third one looked to be two- thirds the size of the others. They all spoke to me with their call. Then a fourth one joined the three. The tree limb was crowded. Out of focus photos could not capture them. The next day an owl sat on lower branches, eyeing me, waiting for me to see him. For a while, I was lost in looking at upper branches, then our eyes locked. Chilling. Mesmerizing. According to Pawnee and Sioux, the owl is a messenger that can bring good or bad news. Supposedly, it depends on one's attitude about the owls. If attracted, the news should be good; if fearful, bad news is on the way. A day later and people from Manchester and the mountain towns were lining up at testing sites.
Were our owls forecasting the cases of COVID-19 coming to our town?
Or am I caught up in mistaken mythology and past perceptions of owls?
Our woods, once chock full of chipmunks, are quiet. Maybe the owls just came for dinner ... or did they?
Roberta Devlin-Scherer writes from Sunderland.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.