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Owls in Lore and Culture

Paper by B. G. Marcot, D. H. Johnson, & M. Cocker Updated 2012-10-31 Created 2000-06-15
Page 8 of 10

Appendix 2

Owl Tales from Africa by Bruce G. Marcot - Postscripts to "Owls in Lore and Culture"

2000 - 2004 - 2006 - 2007 - 2008

1 August 2000

I recently returned from 3+ weeks in southern Africa, mostly in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the Caprivi Strip of Namibia (also corners of Botswana and Zambia). I camped out and stayed in a wide variety of habitats and locations from the coast, along the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers, in thornveld woodland, and on a river island in the Zambezi marshlands.

I spent time with some of the locals of Zulu, Ndebele, Shona, and Balozi tribes, and asked them about their local owl lore.

The answers, across all these sites and cultures, was consistent with what my co-authors and I had presented in our paper on Owls in Lore and Culture.

In general, owls are viewed as harbingers of bad luck, ill health, or death.

Some examples:

* According to Gavin Robinson, the (white) director of a game and ostrich farm north of Bulawayo ("The Cawston Block") in western Zimbabwe, the local indigenous people there (Shonas, I believe) view Ground Hornbills and owls as evil or as portending death. If an owl lands on your house, it is believed that ill luck, or illness per se, will follow. This is especially believed of the Common Barn Owl (called "Screech Owl" there) because of its commensal association with humans and houses. The witch doctors take owls and use their talons and beaks for medicines which help them harm other people - very powerful medicine.

* In Namibia, I spoke with a member of the Balozi tribe in the eastern Caprivi Strip on Impalila Island in the middle of the Zambezi River. He told me that owls in his tribe are thought to bring disease. When owls enter the village, they are shunned or shot, in part because the larger owls such as Giant Eagle-Owls take chickens, but also because they are thought to induce disease merely by their presence.

* In Bulawaya, Zimbabwe, I had a discussion with Peter Mooney, local wildlife biologist researcher and expert on birds and raptors (especially vultures). He said that Common Barn Owls are seen as a "witch's bird" among the local black population. I asked why the Barn Owl. He said, perhaps wryly, "anything white is suspect."

24 September 2004

I recently returned from a month's expedition into the heart of the Congo River Basin, in western Democratic Republic of the Congo, central equatorial Africa. I visited and stayed in 8 remote villages between Mbandaka and Bikoro, and along Lac (Lake) Ntumba (Tumba), Chanel Irebu (connecting Lac Ntumba and the Congo River), the Congo River, the Ubangi (Oubangi) River, and elsewhere in the region. The villagers consisted of mostly Bantu people, with some Pygmy (Batwa) people.

In pirogues (dugout canoes), we went up the Lombambo River along the south edge of Lac Ntumba, and encountered huge (1.5+ m) paper wasp nests hanging over the river.

The local people say the wasps are ferocious and follow you for 2 km, stinging. They said that there are only two ways to get rid of the nests: burn them with fuel (often not available) ... or there is an owl here that closes its eyes and eats the wasps. Quizzing one of the local Bantu fellows (Arthur Botay Mputela) more closely, I narrowed down the owl species to Vermiculated (or Bouvier's) Fishing Owl, Scotopelia bouvieri. This was an unexpected story of a beneficial (ecologial and cultural) function of a large owl of the region. Most other owl stories relate them in negative ways. I have not read anything about this (or any other) owl species engaging in such a behavior, but whether the story is apocryphal or actual, it paints the owl in a positive light.

But other attitudes were present as well. In the village of Bongonde Drapeau (between Mbandaka and Bikoro), I asked a local Bantu about owls, and he replied that owls are viewed here as "dreaded." This was essentially repeated by other Bantu people in other villages we visited. However, I was surprised at how willing local villagers were to help me locate owls at night, once I expressed my scientific interest in finding, calling, and seeing them. Apparently, local beliefs did not inhibit at least some of the people in seeking out owls in the forest at night.

I also discussed the cultural view of owls in Cameroon, with George Akwah, one of my travelling hosts and colleagues who is from that country. He said that in Cameroon, witches are reported to transform into owls. Also, owls announce bad news or foretell death. If you make a call like an owl, people will scold you to stop, saying "Are you a witch?" In Cameroon there are also folk tales about bats which people do not distinguish as a mammal and think of as intermediate between a mammal and a bird (in fact, the French word for bat there is "duplicate").

03 November 2006

More owl tales from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), following another expedition I made there during October 2006 to west central DRC. I traveled to the village of Monkoto and into Salonga National Park (the largest tropical forest park in Africa) and interviewed several groups of people.

Local village chiefs : Within Salonga National Park, I interviewed four Chiefs of local village groups ("groupements"): Chief Lokuli Bosami of Village Groupement Yangi, Chief Bokele Lomama of Village Groupement Isaka, Chief Bokongo Botuli of Village Groupement Mpongo, and Chief Mbeko Ingala of Village Groupement Entoo. The interview was in (my) English translated into (their) Lingala.


Village groupement chiefs, wearing headdresses
of leopard skin and necklaces with leopard teeth.

  • They noted that the perception of owls is "not good." When you hear an owl, it means bad news, such as "perhaps a relative has died back in Kinshasa" (the capital city of DRC). So owls are feared, as they "bring prophecy."
  • Although owls are known to be bad, they are also occasionally eaten (as are most other animals in the region). Both large and small owls are eaten.
  • Owls are "bad species" by custom, but only against men, not women.
  • There is no formal hunting of owls. Owls are killed when they are seen, though, opportunistically.

I probed as to which owls they know. I showed them pictures from my bird book and also played various owl calls from my tape recorder. Most interestingly, it turned out that the "owls" they fear really are only the males of one species : African Wood Owl, Strix woodfordii , a species that most commonly is found around and within villages and secondary forests. To this end, the chiefs noted that there are "two kinds of cries" of the (wood) owl: the bad cries from the male which mean bad news, and another cry from the female which does not mean bad news. What they referred to as the male's bad cry is the typical multi-note song of the African Wood Owl (which in actuality is given by both sexes), and what they referred to as the female's cry is the single-note wail call (probably most often given by females, but possibly also by males and immatures).

They use the Lingala term esukulu ("es-oo-KOO-loo") to refer to "owl" but this really is a direct reference to the "bad" African Wood Owl. The term refers to both sexes of this species.

They use the Lingala term lokio ("low-KEY-oh") to refer to the Vermiculated Fishing Owl (Scotopelia bouvieri), which they say (accurately) occurs only along the river (in riparian gallery forests, as I had also discovered there), and that calls early morning, such as 3 to 5 a.m. Vermiculated Fishing Owls are not bad omens, as they never enter villages.

They use the Lingala term enkimeli ("en-kim-EL-lee") to refer to Pel's Fishing Owl ( Scotopelia peli ), which also is a riparian or flooded-forest species, is not a bad omen, and does not enter villages.

They also spoke of another small owl that "has no cry," which might refer to a number of other possible small owls in the area that do not have calls like the wood owls or fishing owls (although they do have their own distinct, different vocalizations).

Also, they spoke of another owl-like creature called lyokokoli ("leeyo-ko-KOH-lee"; this is not Lingala but instead a local dialect, as there is no Lingala word for this) which is "very rare" and "appears once every forty to fifty years." It has a long wail call that increases in pitch. It is not an owl. They were unable to identify or describe it any further, and I don't believe than any of the chiefs have personally seen this creature; it may exist in story only.

I asked if there are any positive aspects of owls, such as providing special powers, and they replied no. Also, eating owls does not confer any special powers or traits.

Local women forest gatherers : In the village of Monkoto, I interviewed four women who gather non-timber forest products in the forest on a near-daily basis. The interview was mostly in French and (their) Lingala.

They said that local belief in owls pertain to ndoki ("en-DOH-kee"), which is magic or sorcery. When you hear an owl you think of sorcery. Owls are feared because when one cries by your house it means bad news. Then you must throw stones at it to chase it away.

Owls are bearers of news about the death of a relative elsewhere.

They too knew the term esukulu .

I asked if owls are ever eaten in this village, and they said no.

It appeared that they were referring to African Wood Owls, but it was not as clear that it is only this species that is bad.

19 December 2007

While visiting Serena Mountain Lodge on the slopes of Mount Kenya, I engaged an elder naturalist and local field guide, Vincent G. M. Kiama, in discussions of owl lore. He told me that the local people fear owls that "make noise," especially if the owl lands on the rooftop. This is particularly a bad omen, that someone will be reported having died the next day. The older generations have been told and believe such stories, but not the younger generations, said Vincent; apparently, such story-telling is not being passed along.

1 January 2008

At Lake Baringo in the Rift Valley of western Kenya, I spoke with a naturalist and local bird guide Cliff William Kiror about local owl lore. He relayed stories told by the two local tribes, the Tugen tribe of the Kalenjin people, and the Mjemps tribe of the Masai people. If an owl appears on your house, one story goes, it may signal that someone will die. If an owl appears on your house in the daytime, you may go blind. Cliff noted that the such beliefs were held by the older generations but are now being replaced by more rational and conservation-minded thinking of the younger generation.

But still, Cliff said that when an owl appeared on his own family's house, his two sisters wanted to kill it. Cliff explained to them that owls cannot cause death or blindness and should be spared, and his sisters heeded his words.

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