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 alba, and 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 …).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Pestana Salido, Antonio J. 2009. Ed. Tundra. Las aves ibéricas en la cultura popular.
- Nicolai, Jürgen. Ed. Everest. 1995. Aves rapaces diurnas y nocturnas.
- Búhos, lechuzas y leyendas
- Brinzal. Centro de recuperación de rapaces nocturnas
- Seo Birdlife
- The Owl pages
- Cim d’Àligues
- Cover image by Luc Viatour
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