Friday, August 25, 2006

It’s Never Just an Owl

Last night I was awakened at 1:00 AM by the mesmerizing voice of a Great Horned Owl. I had to wake Susan since owls are her favorite species. This bird was right outside our bedroom window, later discovered in the tamarack tree.
It sang for about 15 minutes, then stopped. It returned for an encore performance about 5:30 AM. This time it opted for the copper beach, also right outside our bedroom window. Later in the morning, after the sun was up, I saw the bird fly from the tamarack with only a quick glance over its shoulder as it headed for the national park to its left.
The great thing about owl songs is that they’re so easy to remember. When you live in an area that has only four species of owls, it makes it even easier. Yet, there’s something magical, haunting and to some folks frightening about the owl.
It’s interesting that here in America, maybe I should say Western cultures, we view the owl as “wise.” Other cultures find the owl as varied as the cultures themselves. No other bird species has drawn global and historical significance like the owl.
Native American religions use the owl a lot. The Cree believe the whistle-sounds of a Boreal Owl are a summoning call to the spirit world. If an Apache dreamed of an owl, it was thought death was on the way. This is a similar belief to Native Americans in the Northwest and Alaska. Cherokee tribes consulted Eastern Screech-Owls on punishment and sickness. Other practitioners of Native American spiritual traditions claim the owl represents vision and insight.
In the culture of the Hopi tribes, a number of taboos surround owls. The birds are associated with evil sorcery. Possession of owl feathers is considered an indication of witchcraft.
Hinduism uses the owl as a symbol of cosmic spirituality.
To the Bantu natives in Africa, the owl is thought of as a friend of the wizards. In Eastern Africa, tribes believe owls bring illness to children. Zulus in Southern Africa regard the owl as a bird of sorcerers. Other tribes in the western parts of Africa consider the bird a messenger for wizards as well. In Madagascar it is believed that owls gather with witches to dance on the graves of the dead.
Ancient Egyptians used an owl representation for their hieroglyphs. They would draw an owl hieroglyph with its legs broken to keep the bird of prey from coming to life.
It used to be, in Japanese cultures, the owl was a symbol of death. Seeing one was considered a bad omen. Times change, however. Currently, the bird is considered a bird of luck.
In India, a white owl is considered the companion of the goddess of wealth. It’s a harbinger of prosperity.
In Greek mythology, the owl, and specifically the Little Owl, was often associated with the Greek goddess Athena—a bird goddess if there ever was one—who often assumed the form of an owl. She was also the goddess of wisdom, art and skill. That’s probably how owls became symbols of learning.
Susan and I just love to hear them hoot, even at 1:00 AM.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

A Voyage of Discovery

I’ve been reading a lot about Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery this past year. Maybe devouring is a better word. After reading a plethora of books I decided to go to the source and this summer have been working through the journals of Lewis, Clark and others whose notes on that great adventure of 1804-06 survive.
It’s fascinating to read the daily musings, rants and descriptions from these adventurers. Since they lacked spell checkers in those days (or even dictionaries) it’s slow reading. That slowness, however, lets you savor their moments of terror, starvation and discovery.
Their listings of birds previously not seen or described by white men are intriguing. Because the journals where not published for nearly 100 years after they returned (and that’s another fascinating story) many of the birds they named, now carry different names. (As any academician will tell you, it’s not who makes the discovery, it’s who publishes first that gets the credit.) Here’s Meriwether Lewis’ jottings from 1805 while sitting in soaking clothes in a leaky hut in Oregon: “… a small Crow, the blue crested Corvus and the smaller Corvus with a white brest, and the little brown ren, a large brown sparrow, the bald Eagle and the beatifull Buzzard of the columbia still continue with us.”
Some we can figure out: Steller’s Jay, Winter Wren, California Condor (which they ate); others we can only wonder about.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Mystery of the Barking Dog

Every morning as Bill (his real name) walked to his commuter train he heard a barking dog. It was always in the same spot, deep in a wooded patch not far from his house. Only this dog barked unlike any he had heard. And it was so regular you could almost set your watch by it. There were times when he heard it in the evenings, around dusk. He determined it was some sort of time or motion activated mechanical device the homeowner used to frighten off deer, or burglars, since they do about equal damage.
Then the other evening he and his wife, Kate (also her real name) went for a walk. Right on schedule the dog started barking, thus proving to his wife that while he might occasionally hear voices in his head, barking dogs were for real.
Kate quickly analyzed the situation and noted that it was an owl hooting, not a dog barking.
These folks do not consider themselves birders. (They’re hooked, they just don’t know it yet.) They are computer savvy so when they got home they did the modern-birder thing and headed straight for the information highway. That’s where I come into this scene. Bill (a real co-worker) told me (office resident all-things-nature-guy) about a great Web site he found,, where you not only see great photos of virtually every owl species, you can click on a button and listen to the vocalizations, often the key identifier when determining which owl is hooooo.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Bringing the Outdoors In

I must be a magnet, maybe lightning rod is a better term, for people who want to tell nature-related stories. For example, this morning a co-worker launched into a story about a bat that got into his house last night. And there was no stopping him. Had I dropped to the floor in the middle of the story, I honestly believe he would have finished the tale, then called 911.
Anyway, the story is not all that good, but I did find a grain of education that might be valuable to others should they find themselves in a similar situation.
I’ll leave out the profanity and words of panic that always accompany bats-in-the-house stories. This fellow realized that trying to catch the bat in a net, or waving ones arms at the critter would be of little value. What he did was grab a blanket from the bed and held it up, creating a “wall” for the bat’s sonar. The problem was, each time he maneuvered the bat closer to the open window, he lowered the blanket to check the bat’s position. Right, the bat then flew over the blanket back into the room.
His tactic eventually (two hours later) worked. He says, in thinking the whole process through, he would have done two things differently: He would not have let his wife play the role of terrified supervisor, quick to give him advice but of no help otherwise; and he would have used a see-through shower curtain.
Sound advice.