Owls in Lore and Culture
Owl Tales from India by Bruce G. Marcot -
Postscripts to "Owls in Lore and Culture"
1993 - 2001 - 2005 - 2007
1993 (stories as told to
Bruce Marcot by Baban, an elder Nepali, and by V.B. Sawarkar of the Wildlife Institute of
India, in Dehra Dun, Uttar Pradesh, India)
According to Baban, in northern India and Nepal, small owls, coscoot, are very good.
They come to the house and take mice and bad insects. But large owls, ulu, are very bad.
They will come and perch on the house at night, and that is bad, because if someone comes
to the house and then says your name, ulu will catch it and have it. It will then wait
until all is dark and quiet, and call you with your name, "come out!" and you
will come out to see, and there will be no one there. It will call you out again by name,
"come out!" Then in 10 days, 20 days, by repeating your name over and over, your
life will ebb and death will surely follow.
This is remarkably similar to an owl myth told to V.B. Sawarkar as a boy while growing
up in Pune, India. In that version, the culprit is the Spotted Owlet (Athene brama), a
common resident of city and garden throughout greater India. Instead of catching your
name, it will catch a stone you throw at it and slowly grind down the stone. As the stone
decays, so does your life.
Baban continued that, if you should find the owl, it will appear to befriend you, to
tell you things. It will be obliged to tell you how to prepare itself for cooking. Little
by little, over the nights it will appear on the roof and will teach you how to prepare
its claws, its feet, its legs, its back, its wings, its neck. In its instructions, when it
finally reaches its neck, on the 39th day, you must grab it and slice its head off, or you
will be dead the next morning. (From Baban's descriptions, I surmised that ulu is indeed
the Devil Bird [see text for description].)
Further, Baban says that the tiger, the ulu, and other animals of the jungle that
themselves prey on animals are very bad, but the ones that eat only vegetation are very
good. This distinction may have arisen in India and Nepal from the undesirable habit of
carnivory and that herbivory or insectivory better fit the Hindu vegetarian philosophy.
10 September 2001 (stories as told to Bruce Marcot by Sajeev, a young researcher from Kerela , India)
According to Sajeev, some owl stories from south India include the following.
- If a Barred Owlet or Spotted Owlet is heard, then soon a child will fall ill. Such small owls – those with similar tooting calls – are all referred to as Nattu collectively.
- The Mottled Wood Owl is called Kalam Kozhi . Kalam means god of death, and Kozhi means chicken or fowl, so the overall name means fowl of death. If heard when you are ill or diseased, it means you will die.
- Horned owls (Bubo) can land on the head of hunters and the hunter will die of fright.
6 December 2005 (stories as told to Bruce Marcot by Kewal Singh, Mornochni Village, Tharu Tribe, Uttar Pradesh, northern India)
The Tharu Tribe inhabits riverine grassland environments in northern Uttar Pradesh along the border with Nepal . There, one of the members of the Mornochni Village , Kewal Singh, related to me the following stories he has been told:
- Owls are associated with bad fortune, but it is only the larger owls that bear this stigma. [Marcot note: this is very consistent with the story told to me by Baban, the Nepali, mentioned above.]
- (Large) owls are often associated with the devil, and are not auspicious.
- The female Eagle Owl, Bubo bubo, can get very annoyed (if harassed) and then she feigns death. You can approach the owls, even turn it over and it will not move. The male owl will keep giving calls and the female will finally respond with a quiet call.
- Local shamans can kill an owl and take its soul, its power, and put its power into a tabich (a talisman worn around the neck). Then the owl power will guide you to find wealth or to find people of wealth (it does not give you wealth; it only guides you). I asked if any part of the owl is taken for its power, such as its talons or feathers, and he did not know; this is known only to the shamans.
14 December 2005 (stories as told to Bruce Marcot by a member of the Garo Hills Tribe, western Meghalaya, northeast India)
There is a Garo tribe story of an owl: An owl was with a Hill Myna and said "I shall lay eggs as beautiful as yours." The owl said this same thing day after day but never laid the eggs. So this led to the (Garo) phrase and concept of saying one thing and doing another.
In October 2007, I visited Kaziranga National Park in Assam, northeast India. There, I discussed owl lore with a young Assamese naturalist and bird field guide named Polash Borah (we also tracked down two Brown Fish Owls on roost in a dense copse within a tea garden). He said that one story is that when a large owl appears in your yard and calls HOO-DOO, it is an "indicator" (his word) that something will happen or that you must do something soon, usually portending something bad such as illness. Polash said that the Asamese word for owl itself is hoodoo, an obvious onomatopoeia.
But if a small owl calls, Polash told me, it signals that a young girl is about to reach puberty and womanhood, which in Assamese culture is cause of celebration and a big party. Polash imitated the chuckle call of a small owl, the Asian Barred Owlet (Glaucidium cuculoides), to illustrate.
In October 2007, I spent time in far south India, and discussed owl lore with a local denizen of the village of Thekkady on the border of Periyar Tiger Reserve, in the state of Kerala. The fellow I spoke with was C.A. Abdul Bashir, Ecotourism Officer of Periyar Tiger Reserve, a most articulate and learned man. Regarding owl lore, he conveyed that local people consider owls in a very superstitious manner because owls - particularly Mottled Wood Owls (Strix oscellata) - "have a very eerie kind of a call". The Mottled Wood Owl's call is viewed as "a heralding of the Goddess of Death"
and signals that "death is imminent." He pointed out that even in the sound tracks of films, owl calls are used to impart a sense of ominous tension when waiting for something grievous to happen. Such ideas, he said, are held not just by the local tribe but are transferred among many indigenous communities and thus serve to reinforce and complement such beliefs in this way.
I noted to Abdul that in other parts of India or Asia, smaller owls can bring good luck or fortune, but he said that he did not think that "any owl is associated with any element of goodness" [in south India], and that owls "always herald something unfavorable."
Abdul noted, with the booming call of the Brown Fish Owl (Bubo zeylonensis) in the night, the male will call once and the female will call twice. This has become a kind of saying, a proverb, that when the male owl makes one call, the female calls twice, referring to if a husband and wife of the house fight, the wife will be more vociferous.
Abdul also noted that sometimes an owl - likely the smaller owls, such as Asian Barred Owlet (Glaucidium cuculoides) or Jungle Barred Owlet (Glaucidium radiatum) - might come into the house after insects. It is believed that when this happens, the owl will bring illness.
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