Lechuza común, lechuza en vuelo, tyto alba, barn owl in flight

Nocturnal birds of prey: the barn owl, legends and myths

Nocturnal birds of prey have suffered since a long time ago an unfair bad reputation that has led them in some cases to be persecuted and hated. What are these superstitions? Which is their conservation state? What can you do for them? In this article you will discover owls and the barn owl, Tyto albaand the legends associated with them.

GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF NOCTURNAL BIRDS OF PREY

As its name suggests, most nocturnal birds of prey (owls, owls, tawny owls) have nocturnal or crepuscular habits. They are carnivorous, with beaks and claws (two toes forward and two backward) adapted to tear flesh from their prey (small mammals, birds, reptiles, large insects ).

HEARING

Owls usually have a rounded shape and apparent large head, with the face feathers forming the so-called facial disk. The facial disc serves as a dish heading sounds towards the ears. The opening of the ear is large, with a fold of skin (preaural halda), which functions as a pinna and is movable as in some mammals.

Oído de lechuza norteña (Aegolius acadicus). (Foto tomada de Jim McCormac).
Norther saw whet owl ear (Aegolius acadicus). (Photo by Jim McCormac).

The position of each ear is asymmetric in some species (one is higher than the other), so some of them -like the barn owl- can locate prey in complete darkness: an ear perceives sound before the other, so their  brain can calculate the exact place where prey is (directional hearing).

Boreal owl skull, cráneo de mochuelo boreal
Boreal owl skull (Aegolius funereus) where can be seen the asymmetric hearing openings and sclerotic eye rings. (Photo taken of Jim Williams)

EYESIGHT

Owl’s vision is highly developed. Eyes, unlike most birds, are in front position, which allows a perfect estimation of depth and three-dimensional vision. On the other hand, eyes are tubular (not spherical like ours) due to the large size of the cornea and lens, which prevents owls from moving them within their sockets. Also they have a protective bone plate around the eyes (sclerotic rings) that also impede movement. To solve this problem, they are able to turn his head 270 degrees. It can be considered that they see in black and white (they best perceive changes in light rather than colors), the pupil dilates a lot in bad light conditions (iris is hidden by dilated pupil) and they are the only birds in which the eyelid closes up to below. They also have a transparent lid” that moistens and protects the eye, called the nictitating membrane.

Visión lechuza, binocular, vista, búho, razces nocturnas
Binocular vison of a nocturnal bird of prey. Humans have a field vision of 180 degrees, 140 of them binocular). (Image by The Owl Pages)

PLUMAGE

Owls, unlike diurnal birds of prey, have a special flight feathers structure, fringed at the top surface and contours. The friction between them and the air is damped, achieving a spectacular silent flight undetectable by preys.

Pluma de lechuza común y autillo, donde se observan las barbicelas. (Foto tomada de Pedro Montoya).
Barn owl feather (Tyto alba) and european scops owl (Otus scops), (Image taken of Pedro Montoya).

THE BARN OWL

The barn owl (Tyto alba), is unmistakable: it has a very well defined and heart-shaped facial disk. The back is gray with golden spots and fine black and white dots.

DISTRIBUTION AND BEHAVIOUR

The barn owl lives all over the world (except Antarctica, north Europe and most Asia) and don’t build a nest, but lays eggs in tree holes, holes in the rock or human buildings (barns, attics, farmhouses, castles, churches ).

Why the barn owl has this negative reputation that caused their persecution in many parts of the world and in Spain? Causes are diverse, all fed by human fear:

  • They can nest in abandoned or sacred locations as churches (some with their own cemetery).
  • Nocturnal habits
  • They are sendentary, they can stay in the same hunting ground for years until food is scarce.
  • Ghostly appearance due to their colors and smooth and silent flight.
  • By their vocalizations (they have 17 different ones) like human screams and peculiar snorts. Listen to some owls making a defense vocalization in the following video:

THE BARN OWL IN THE POPULAR CULTURE. BELIEFS, SUPERSTITIONS, MYTHS AND LEGENDS

In the Iberian Peninsula was believed that owls drank the oil of the lamps in churches, leaving the Saints in the dark (when the real thieves were sacristans). By landing on lamps or touching them and pouring the oil, it was believed that owls hated light, like evil spirits. In spanish and catalan there are sayings that refer to this myth. They were hunted, killed and hanged above the doors of churches and barns to ward off fire and lightning.

The vocalizations of barn owls are also interpreted as announcements of death, and there is a belief (without basis) that if someone hear an owl for several nights (something not difficult given their sedentary habits) a person suddenly will lose life.

Tyto alba, lechuza común, lechuza de campanario
Barn owl (Tyto Alba). (Photo by Kerkuil André).

In other cultures there are also negative legends about owls: in Africa that are sent by sorcerers to kill people or evil demons announcing disasters, in the Argentine pampas that they are sisters of the devil; in Sicily, death or illness for all these reasons they have been killed and tortured.

However, they can also be a good sign (such as guardians of women who die in Australia), but the best known case is the representation of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom. Currently still appears as a symbol of many institutions and in Greek euro coins.

Euro grecia, euro griego
Greek euro. (Resource: RTVE)

CURRENT STATUS AND THREATS

Nowadays the barn owl is in a state of decline and with an uncertain future due to changes introduced by humans in rural areas, such as changes in cultivation or use of pesticides and rodenticides, which kill their prey (mice) or indirectly birds themselves. The works and renovations of buildings where they used to nest also interfere with reproduction. They also suffer accidents due to the towers and power lines and are often hit by cars. Canary subspecies (Tyto alba gracilirostris) is disappearing due its habitat fragmentation and the low number of individuals in their populations.

Lechuza muerta
Barn owl in a barbed wire. (Photo by PacoT).

It is listed as Endangered in the Red Book of Birds of Spain and included in the National Catalogue of Endangered Species in the category “Special interest“.

WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR OWLS?

Try to find out about these magnificent birds and make them known to your immediate surrounding, banishing misconceptions, especially if you live near their nesting and feeding areas. If you own crops, try to minimize the use of pesticides: a pair of barn owls hunt in average about 2,000 mice a year, being therefore even beneficial to humans.

If you find an owl or wounded bird, you have to pick it carefully (using a towel or a jacket) to avoid hurt it or being hurt, and leave it in a dark, quiet place inside a box pierced so it can breathe. Do not feed it. Then contact a wildlife recovery centre.

REFERENCES

If you enjoyed this article, please share it on social networks to spread it. The aim of the blog, after all, is to spread science and reach as many people as possible. Feel free to share your experience with birds of prey in the comments below. ¿Do you know someone who still believe in this owl legends?

This publication is licensed under a Creative Commons:Llicència Creative Commons

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5 pensaments a “Nocturnal birds of prey: the barn owl, legends and myths”

  1. Hola,
    La fotografía de la lechuza volando de frente con un ratón en el pico es mía, y no de ese tal M.A.Dioniso que citas al pies de foto.
    No sé si sabes que es ilegal “coger” fotografías sin permiso del autor.
    Te pido que la quites o por lo menos uses el nombre del verdadero AUTOR:
    Iván Corbacho de la Herrán.

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