National Geographic : 1935 Feb
SHADOWY BIRDS OF THE NIGHT* BY ALEXANDER WETMORE Assistant Secretary, Smithsonian Institution T HE evening air of late February in the Everglades of southern Florida is soft and mild. Delicate scents from unseen blossoms come with the breeze, to gether with the voices of myriad frogs in incessant but attractive chorus from the marshes. Suddenly, from the moss-fes tooned live oaks in this peaceful back ground, comes an outburst of demoniacal laughter, guttural in sound and startling in its abruptness, causing in me pleasant tremors of excitement. Playing the beam of light from an electric torch through the branches, I discover pres ently two glowing spots of ruby red, reflec tions from a pair of eyes. As my own eyes adjust themselves to the feeble illumination, I can distinguish dimly the shadowy form of a great barred owl. The hubbub stops immediately, for the bird is puzzled by the spot of light; but as I continue along the trail the owl, now behind me, utters a loud, prolonged whoo-oo-oo-aw that resounds eerily among the trees. Until daybreak I hear at intervals the wild ululation of its calls filling the darkened woodland. The voices of owls are more familiar than their persons, as most of them are active principally at night, and without special search the birds themselves are difficult to see. Their presence, unseen but constantly evident, has caused imagination to play about them until in practically every country in the world there have grown up fables and superstitions regarding owls. FABLED BIRDS OF WISDOM AND OF DOOM The little owl of Europe, about as large as the American screech owl but without the ear tufts of that species, has long been an emblem of wisdom, and in early years was accepted as a special ward of Pallas Athena of the Greeks. Romans, to whom this god dess became Minerva, did not retain this reverence for the bird, considering it of evil omen and a messenger of bad news. Death was foretold by owls alighting on the house tops, and their calls near by at night aroused fear and foreboding. * This is the tenth article, illustrated by paintings by Maj. Allan Brooks, in the important GEO GRAPHIC series describing the bird families of the United States and Canada. The eleventh article, with paintings in color by Major Brooks, will appear in an early number. The vogue of the owl as an emblem of wisdom is not due to any special intelligence of the bird, but to the conformation of the head, with the two eyes so placed that they look directly ahead like those of man. As the companion of night-flying witches, or as one of the ingredients in the brews con cocted by these trouble-makers, the owl de veloped a black and unsavory reputation, attested by many references to its evil omen in Shakespeare and other writers. Among American Indians, owls, though feared at times, were in better repute and were the basis of various lively legends. Zufii tales include stories of one called "gray owl" that lived in a house as a man does. The Pima Indians held that at death the human spirit passed into the body of an owl and, to assist in this transmigration, they gave owl feathers, kept for the purpose in a special box, to a dying person. ELVES AND GIANTS AMONG OWLS Among the Plains Indians, the Arikara in cluded an owl group as one of their eight mystic societies, and in the sacred rites of this body they used the stuffed skin of an owl with disks of cunningly fitted buffalo horn for eyes. This emblem was displayed during their ceremonies to represent night, the eyes being symbolic of the morning star. Owls are found throughout the world from the Arctic regions through the continents and to remote islands in the sea. More than three hundred kinds are known, ranging in size from the tiny elf owls, no larger than sparrows, to the powerful horned owls and eagle owls, which are two feet or more in length. Scientifically, all owls are included in one order, the Strigiformes, in which two families are recognized, one for the barn owls (Ty tonidae) and the other (Strigidae) for all other species. Regardless of their size, owls are instantly identified by their broad faces with promi nent disks of feathers about the eyes, cou pled with sharp, curved beaks and claws, and long, fluffy feathers. Their nearest rela tives are the whippoorwills, nighthawks, and goatsuckers.* * See "Seeking the Smallest Feathered Crea tures," by Alexander Wetmore, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for July, 1932.