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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 5 of 10

OWLS AS ENVIRONMENTAL INDICATORS

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow'r
The moping owl does to the moon complain.

Thomas Gray 1716-1771. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard [1750], 1st. 3

In China, owls have been associated with thunder and the summer solstice (Saunders 1995). Elsewhere, owls associated with old forests have been seen more recently by modern natural resource management agencies as prognosticators of the health and fate of such environments. These owls have been called management indicator species by agencies such as USDA Forest Service, who has identified the Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) as such an indicator of old-growth conifer forests of northwestern United States.

But the Spotted Owl has other cousins that have been, or can be, used to indicate the health of the vanishing ancient forests of the world. For example, in the greater Indian subcontinent ranges the Brown Wood Owl, Strix leptogrammica, which likewise inhabits mostly old and lesser disturbed forests of sal (Shoria robusta). In the Himalayas resides the Bay Owl (Phodilus badius), a rare denizen and indicator of dense evergreen submontane forests of cedar and other conifers. In the Russian Far East, the endangered Blakiston's Fish Owl (Ketupa blakistoni) also serves this function, found thinly scattered only in the increasingly rare dense riparian forests of old fir, larch, pine, and hardwoods in southern Siberian Ussuriland. Throughout the world, some 82 owl species are closely associated with old forests (Marcot 1995), most awaiting recognition as useful indicators of old-forest conditions.

TOWARD A TOLERANT CONSERVATION

Owl mythologies have come virtually full circle in Europe and America. From the worst bird in the world the owl has become almost the most popular. And old mythologies actually make owl conservation easier. The old bad news has become a way of making owls appealing for a contemporary audience.

This transformations in the owl's image is yet to be fully researched, but we can offer some initial comparisons. Firstly, understanding European and American owl myths may help us better understand or interpret contemporary African and Asian attitudes. It also may help us understand owl taboos amongst today's Native Americans and Canadians, tribal South Americans, and other First Nations.

Secondly, if owl mythologies have evolved so dramatically in the West, then perhaps they offer an insight into the way owl mythologies could eventually metamorphose in other parts of the world, such as in Africa and Asia.

Thirdly, by understanding the patterns of owl mythology in modern day Africa and possibly South America and Asia, we might be able to better understand better our own cultural past.

Overall, the contemporary conservation community has not grasped the deeply negative image of owls in less developed parts of the world. In fact, conservationists in general tend to think of birds or other wildlife mostly or only in terms of their own Western ecological-science-based and conservation-oriented system. By failing to appreciate other patterns of belief about birds they are actually putting themselves at a disadvantage. In the case of the owl, this is especially significant, because the overwhelming nature of owl beliefs is that the beast is evil. Even in Western cultures, until the 1950s owls were routinely nailed to barn doors in France and U.K. to ward off lightening and the evil eye. There is even evidence to suggest that these practices continue today in parts of rural Britain.

In this brief review, we have but highlighted a few of the many roles of owls in myth and culture. We encourage readers to pursue additional sources, particularly Cenzato and Samtopitro (1990), Holmgren (1988), Ingersoll (1958), Medlin (1967), and Weinstein (1989).

It is important not just to understand historical views of owls in myth and culture, but also how such views have changed over time to the present and travelled geographically as human cultures have moved. A major problem with bird folklore is that some texts repeat the same ideas without any critical analysis of the truth of what they say. Most of these ideas about owls probably refer to the early modern period and were almost certainly gathered in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. But now many of them have completely died out, depending on the cultural development of the people in question. For example, Batchelor's (1901) book, "The Ainu and Their Folklore," analyzes this northern Japanese community's beliefs about animals, especially owls, at the end of the 19th century. These old cultural ideas sometimes are still retailed as if they were living traditions, when, in fact, modern Ainu may consider their ancestors owl beliefs as no more than old wives' tales, a part of their own colourful but quaint past. We should therefore attempt to weed out the living from the archaic.

However in Africa deep taboos about owls are still powerful and living traditions. In fact, in West Africa the pattern of owl beliefs probably reflects European attitudes up until the Medieval age.

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