There are some 181 species of owls in the world. Nineteen breed in North America. The one above is one of the many symbolic or metaphysical types. You’ll find it atop the ornate entrance of the Brooklyn Public Library, Central Branch, Grand Army Plaza, along with the golden characters of some great American books.
Glaukos, the Owl of Athena — or Minerva when in Rome– is a symbol of wisdom; this bird is named for its “glaring eyes.” Grey-eyed Athena, whom you pretty much always want on your side, is also sometimes referred to as the glaring-eyed one. The wise old owl is thus an old, old trope. Walt Kelly plays nicely with this with Howland Owl, the nearsighted dingbat of the swamp, a pretentious pseudo-intellectual given to expound on the “geophizzical” while wearing a wizard’s — or dunce’s — cap.
But owls are also symbols of death, for their calls are supposed to presage it. And, of course, owls are familiars of witchcraft. Why? The night, and those great big gleaming eyes. The silence of their flight (their feathers are specially adopted to hush the wind.) The blood-curdling sounds some of them make: hooooooooooo. Certainly the foresight of death and magic are quite serious kinds of wisdom. Interestingly, Asian notions of the owl seem to have come across the Bering Strait, for Native American owl myths are quite similar to Old World ones.
We can’t leave without the most Hegelian of them all, in perhaps one of his most famous moments, the owl of Minerva flying at dusk:
“One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it… When philosophy paints its gloomy picture then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.” — G.W.F. Hegel, 1820