Owls In Culture

athenaDid you know Florence Nightingale had a pet Little Owl? She rescued it and named it Athena, after the Greek goddess, who was ssociated with owls (so much so that the binomial for this European species is Athene noctua). When Nightingale — the first person named after the English version of Firenza, by the way, where she was born; her sister’s middle name was the less fortunate Parthenope — had to go off to become famous during the Crimean War, she left Athena to fend for herself (?) in the family attic. Florence and others thought the bird would feast on the mice infestation there. But it was so tame it starved to death, knowing only that spindly pale creatures entirely overdressed in non-feathers fed it regularly by hand. A moral for keeping wild things wild, even if they would otherwise die?

I gleaned this anecdote (but added the moral) from Desmond Morris’s Owl, one of the Animal series by Reaktion Books (distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the U.S.), which I found recently at the Strand. The picture above is from the book: Athena was stuffed and is on display at the Nightingale Museum in London. I enjoyed reading this book on Superb Owl Sunday.

I’ve read about half a dozen of the Animal series. Each book concerns itself with a different species. They’re more about the human culture of animals, in art, mythology, medical quackery (eating owl eggs to cure drunkeness, for instance) and so on, not so much the natural history of the animals themselves. Owl has, however, a quite good summery of natural history at the later end of the book. With a different writer for each book, they’re uneven productions, but certainly worth a look. The illustrations are small but give a good sense of being curated in the best sense. There’s a Botanical series now as well, but I haven’t seen any of them.Chauvet Morris, who came to fame with the The Naked Ape in the late 1960s, starts his short survey with the typically large-eyed oval face of owls, which look surprising human-like, at least for birds. The owl scraped into the wall in France’s Chauvet cave 30,000 years ago, pictured above, is his first example of a prehistoric owl.

Because they’re nocturnal and make some wonderfully strange sounds, owls have long been assigned ambivalent meanings: they are witchy, harbingers or messengers of death or bad luck, but sometimes also good guys, the wise old owl. (In fact, while owls are excellent nocturnal hunters, and have amazing hearing, with a big chunk of brain power devoted to it, corvids are wiser if you consider smarts to be about problem-solving.) Reading a litany of these associations from around the world, and the quack uses of owls, it’s a wonder that any owls have survived our narcissism. Ah, well, another species to escape, somewhat, our primitive grasping for significance and meaning. elk owlThis is a tee-shirt of mine, btw, a gift. I call it the Elk Owl.

4 Responses to “Owls In Culture”


  1. 1 elwnyc February 12, 2016 at 10:58 am

    Is the Elk Owl descended from the Jackalope?

  2. 3 Deb Allen February 12, 2016 at 11:39 am

    Thanks Matthew. I had no idea Morris had written a book about owls. I look forward to reading it.

    • 4 mthew February 12, 2016 at 2:42 pm

      Nor I. Reaktion’s list is long. Pure serendipity finding the book in Strand’s basement birding section, which usually rewards the browser with a good mix of classics and (cheaper) new editions. They also have a separate large-format ornithology section.


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