Sadder than Owl-Songs

Sadder than Owl-Songs: Britain and its Owls 

Independent Saturday Magazine, February 2001


So runs the telegram in Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson, warning of a young Duke's approaching death. Owl-calls are bad news. They may be simply melancholy, a note of sadness and complaint: "The moping owl doth to the moon complain," observed Thomas Gray in his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard; and Byron thought the "portentous phrase 'I told you so'" was "sadder than owl-songs". But mainly, those calls have been taken as a portent of death. In Julius Caesar, the omens of disaster include a "bird of night": an owl which sat

Even at noonday upon the market-place
Hooting and shrieking.

Lady Macbeth, waiting for her husband to murder Duncan, is startled by a sudden noise, then realizes what it is: an owl, a "fatal bellman", harbinger of death.

Fear, then, and death, are the first ingredients in our imagining of owls. If you look at real owls, the fear is justified, in a way. When I went down to the New Forest Owl Sanctuary, to watch an owl-flight show, the first owl I met was Chunky, monstrous and muscly, two-foot high with erectile ear-tufts. A European Eagle Owl, second largest owl in the world. (Siberian Eagle Owls, a subspecies, are a fraction bigger.) He was standing balefully on the ground, twisting his devil's-horn head backwards like the possessed girl in The Exorcist, raking the field - and us - in a grumpy golden glare.

"Come on," called Terry the demonstrator, lodging a dead mouse on a post twelve yards away.

It was the last day of autumn. Gales were ploughing up the south coast, a tornado had cut through a caravan site. Like a Christmas shopper stepping up on a moving bus, Chunky launched his barrel body a few inches into the wind. Huge wingtips brushed the ground. Delicately, for all that bulk, he landed on the post and seized his mouse in a grip of iron. Owls, you realized watching, are born killers.

"Chunky's feet," said Terry "are a deadly weapon. They work on a ratchet principle: the more his prey moves, the tighter he grips. Once he starts gripping" - Terry himself wore massive leather gauntlets - "he's impossible to prise off. The only time he relaxes his feet is when he feels no movement. If you are going to fly him, you've got to keep totally still."

Terry stroked the heather-mix feathers. Chunky acknowledged him with a stare from the perfect Giotto O's of his fire-gold eyes.

"Chunky's ancestors were wiped out in England a hundred years ago: farmers thought they were after the lambs. In Europe, Eagle Owls take young roe deer, heron, large fish, calves - anything that moves, even a Springer Spaniel. They are the biggest killer of Peregrine Falcons, coming up behind them on the rock ledge when they're asleep."

Owls even attack people, if they're too close to a nest. "A Finnish birdwatcher was approaching a bridge recently in spring twilight," said Terry. "He stopped to listen for trains before crossing and was coshed violently on the back of the head. As he fell down the screes he realized an Eagle Owl was nesting under the bridge, and had turned him from her door. In Britain, though, it is the Tawny Owls you have to watch. The photographer Eric Hosking lost an eye that way: he climbed into the hide to photograph young Tawnies and felt a heavy blow to his face and a searing pain in his left eye."

And some owls - females, I'm sorry to say, who are usually larger than the males - attack their spouses.

"Owls mate for life," said Terry. Chunky eyed him hopefully from the ground. "A male like Chunky has to. The females of his species are half as big as him again. If one appeared in front of him now, he'd puff his feathers and his ear tufts up to look bigger, but he'd keep a very safe distance. If she gave the right signals, fine. If not, he'd fly off quick. For if she didn't like the look of him, she's quite capable of - well, 'Let's do lunch,' has special meaning for a female Eagle Owl."

So Chunky's problem is finding a mate that won't eat him. Once he's found her, it's safer to stay faithful than start over.

Where did these glarey killers come from? The common ancestor of all owls was a winged predator in the Cretaceous Period, a hundred million years ago, which began to specialize in the night. A wise career move: less competition, and prey that if not actually asleep is at least in the dark. No wing-shadow gives you away. The first recognizably owl fossil is sixty million years old; fossil species of twenty million years ago clearly belong to the same families as species today: Bubo, Asio, Tyto, Otus, Strix.

For across the globe, owls come in an astonishing range. Fossils show there are more extinct species than live ones, but there are still more than a hundred and fifty around; deeply different, from the tiny Elf Owl to giants like Chunky. They have adopted fantastically different climates and habitats, from the Tropics to the Arctic, from pine-woods to treeless tundra and prairie burrows. But all, despite their multiform bodies, made the night their own; and rodents their special study. A mouse is a mouse wherever, in the Steppes of Asia or the British hedgerow. To locate rodents, pattering light as an eyelash through the dark, owls also evolved laser-sharp hearing and, most importantly, piercing vision. Barn Owls can see objects in light 1000 times less intense than we need. For that vision, they evolved not only the flat-disc moon face but also front-facing eyes.

As well as the sinister cry in the night, the owl feature that focusses human fears most sharply are these enormous glowing eyes. The fear-power is enhanced by the devil way owls twist their heads around. They can't swivel their eyes to look behind them like other birds. Instead they swivel their necks: some as far as 270 degrees. Across a vast range of cultures, from Aboriginal to Eskimo, owls have been drawn, carved, and mythologized as the staring eyes that encapsulate our fear of being watched - especially in the dark.

Jean-Paul Sartre said the gaze of the Gorgon was about the shock of self-consiousness: of suddenly realizing you're being watched when you thought you were the one doing all the looking.

Imagine, he said, you're at the end of a dark corridor, peeping through a keyhole at other people in the room beyond, and suddenly hear a noise behind you. You spin round and see eyes staring at you. While you were watching others, something else was watching you.

That frisson, when you change from being the subject of looking to its object, empowers owl anecdotes of waking in an attic bedroom at night to see an owl, staring glassily at you from the foot of your own bed.

The Greek goddess Athene had an owl familiar. It leans beside her on statues; you see it on the coins of Athens. But she carried something else on her shield: the Gorgon's head, whose eyes turned enemies to stone, and also warded off the Evil Eye.

As goddess of war as well as wisdom, Athene was deeply connected to both the threat, and the self-defence, involved in the act of looking. The owl is her animal emblem of the danger and power involved, both at war and in matters of wisdom, in being looked at, and in looking back.

Owls belong with the dark, and so turn up in magic. Owl parts are used in all sorts of spells. The Witches in Macbeth throw a "howlet's wing" into their cauldron, powdered owls' feet cure snake-bite, owl hearts are a truth drug, owl eggs prevent hangovers, owls nailed above the door ward off the Evil Eye. In parts of China, roof-corners are carved with owls to keep off lightning.

In many myths and cultures, the most special knowledge comes from darkness: from underground oracles, dark woods, blind seers, as well as own dark hearts. W.H. Auden's elegy for Freud associated the unconscious with "fauna of the night". The lurking desires of our mind and heart are creatures of night. And owl, the bird of night, knows all its secrets.

In The Sword in the Stone, T. H. White gave King Arthur's tutor Merlin a pet owl with a learned name: Archimedes. Your Arthur offends him by calling him Archie. No no, says Merlin:

"The mother of all owls is Athene. Though they are often ready to play the buffoon for your amusement, such conduct is the prerogative of the truly wise. No owl can possibly be called Archie."

But knowingness is often resented. Behind the wise Archimedes stands the endearing fraudulence of A.A. Milne's Owl in Pooh, respected because he can spell "Tuesday", though he cannot spell it right. "Owl's got Brain", say other creatures humbly, but Owl is a pretender. His persona trembles with that Edwardian mockery of braininess whose nursery emblem is "owlish" spectacles. Billy Bunter, in 1909, is "the Greedy Owl of the Remove".

And real owls? "In spite of that reputation for wisdom," said Terry, "Chunky's actually rather stupid. You'll see when I take him in. He doesn't like going back in his cage but every time I throw a mouse in, he goes in after it. He's just can't work it out."

Chunky is a captive, like other owls in this Sanctuary, which runs an international breeding programme for endangered owls, as well as being a local hospice for owls-in-need. In Britain today, now the Eagle Owl's died out, we still have six wild species. These, the Tawny, Snowy, Short-Eared, Long-Eared, Little, and Barn Owls, even on our island bear the trade-mark of owl families: variety.

The Tawny (or Wood Owl, or Brown Owl), is our commonest owl, the classic tu whit to whu-ing owl, with a further repertoire of screams, gurgles, snores, whistles. It was Tawnies who answered Wordsworth when he called them up as a boy by hooting through laced fingers:

They would shout
Across the watery vale, and shout again,
Responsive to his call, with quivering peals,
And long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild
Of jocund din!

Tawnies - fluffy-feathered, with a dark tracery round the edges of their chestnut feathers - breed across Africa, Europe (though never in Ireland for some reason), and Asia down to China. Deeply nocturnal, aggressively territorial but adaptable, Tawnies like woodland and nest in tree hollows. When the forests were demolished they took to parkland. Now the countryside is retreating, they have settled in city parks and suburbs.

A Long-Eared Owl (or Horned Owl, or Tufted Owl) is a fierce-looking piece of work with ear-tufts, barred and stippled breast-feathers, and deep orange eyes: an elusive owl, roosting in dark woods and hunting along forest edges, letting rip its territory calls - a series of hoots, like an determined alto warming up in an auditorium.

But Short-Eared Owls love the mountain and the moorland - everywhere, Eastern Europe, North and South America, the Falklands, and North Asia as well as Britain. They have buff bodies blotched dark brown, pale moon faces ringed with dark feathers, lemon yellow eyes, and wings spanning three and a half feet: broad, rounded wings, tilted like a Harrier's, which they clap loudly in bursts of territorial display.

They are right to be cocky: every grown-up has a tough cv behind it, for not only do these owls hunt in daylight, in open country, they also nest in tussocks on the ground. As chicks, they left that vulnerable nest at fifteen days old, but didn't fly for another ten, open to the mercy of foxes and weasels.

The Little Owl - Britain's smallest, not much bigger than a blackbird - was introduced from Holland in 1889; the UK population now is about 10,000 pairs, but it breeds all through Scandinavia, Europe, North Africa, and Asia to North Korea. This was Athene's owl. That little silhouette you see on telegraph wires at dusk or dawn, with wide yellow eyes and glowering eye-brows, accompanied by a sharp feline Keyoo!, has graced a thousand drachmas in its time.

Our biggest owl is (or was) the Snowy or Arctic Owl: up to 26 inches, a wing span of five feet. Males are ivory white, females and chicks filigreed with chocolate or grey. From far off, sitting on the ground, they can look like a Persian cat and some dialects call them "cat bird".

Snowy Owls have been in Europe a long time: there is one with young on a prehistoric cave painting in France (far south of the Snowy Owl's present range) when the Ice Age was retreating north. But they are closing down in Britain as I write. In 1967, a pair bred in the Shetland Isles. Now there are no pairs left, just a few males, and no plans to bring in females. Otherwise, it lives around the pole in remote tundra north of the tree-line, hunting lemmings and Arctic hares, and nesting in a scrape on the ground.

We have these five owls (for a while longer, anyway), and one more, one of the most beautiful, evocative, and literary owls in the world. The Barn Owl, White Owl, Screech Owl; Old Hushwing. The Barn Owl does not hoot: it shrieks like an M.R. James banshee. But despite the bloodcurdling noise, this is the owl that lived closest to us, and which we welcomed most warmly to our hearts. It was the Farmer's Friend, once a classic feature of the British countryside.

Lovely are the curves of the white owl sweeping
Wavy in the dusk lit by one large star,

says George Meredith, in Love in the Valley. In the Owl Sanctuary, Terry made sure one of the flying stars wou;dn't eat the other, and enticed the fatally obtuse Chunky behind his bars with a goodbye mouse. Then he brought out Sid. "He's everyone's favourite," said Terry lovingly.

Sid, the Barn Owl, was white, lightly brushed on back and wingtops with scattery saffron, as if Terry had upended a sugar castor of gold dust over him. On the ground, he looked smaller than you'd think. Shiny black eyes, milky heart-shaped face with tawny ruff; each feather tear-drop-tipped with silver. When he swooped over our heads, soundless as dandelion seed, we saw what George Meredith saw: that gliding shadow that has drifted, tilting like a biplane, across a thousand moonlit landscapes.

We also saw a high wind riffling Sid's feathers like a gambler shuffling a poker pack. Then he disappeared.

"He doesn't like the wind," says Terry. "Amanda!"

After a long pause, a girl opened a door in the wall: Sid hopped politely through. "He was looking at the otters," said Amanda.

Unlike other owls, Barn Owls are all about dependence on human beings: hence the name we've given them. When the mediaeval forests were felled, for grassland and field crops, rodents piled into the crop stores and Barn Owls moved in on the rodents. They found that human buildings, attics, churches, and above all barns (right on top of the food supply, made perfect nest sites. And farmers found them the perfect tenant. A longterm tenant, too, for Barn Owls are faithful to their nest site and territory of one or two square miles. Farmers leapt to built "owl windows" in barn gable ends, so they'd roost among rafters and keep down the mice. It was the ideal symbiotic partnership - for a time. (Not only in Britain: Barn Owls are the most widespread owl species in the world, found on every continent except Antarctica.)

But barn Owls are also the worst owls at adapting to modern lfe. In Britain, they have died out fast since the Nineteen Forties. The first census was in 1932; a second, in the Eighties, showed they were declining 70 per cent, by more than two thirds. They got special protection under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act but today there are only about 3,800 pairs in England and Wales, 650 pairs in Scotland, 600-900 pairs in Ireland.

Why are Barn Owls worst off?

Because they have been so heart-wrenchingly linked to us. The Farmer's Friend staked his life on farmers; and farming changed. His habitat, feeding-ground and nest-sites - all the things he needs - disappeared. Farmers bought combine harvesters, did away with mice-rich rough grassland and hedges along rivers, demolished stackyards and straw-bedded stables, pulled barns down or sold them off as fashionable homes. Hollow trees fell to Dutch Elm Disease.

At the same time, weather changes had a terrible effect on Barn Owl physiology. Bird survival depends on how each species stores its body fat and Barn Owls can't store much. They hate the cold. Britain is one of their most northerly outposts, and they are declining in northern states of America too. Coleridge in The Ancient Mariner assumes owls can handle any amount of Christmas card icing -

When the ivy-tod is heavy with snow
And the owlet whoops to the wolf below -

but in fact even a few days' snow on the ground makes it hard for Barn Owls to find food. They lose condition quickly. If they don't starve, they may still be too weak to breed the following spring.

Plus, unluckily, British winters got colder just as farming methods changed. "St Agnes Eve - ah, bitter cold it was," says Keats in the 1820s. "The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold." But winters have got colder since. There was a huge increase in snow cover in 1900, which worsened in the early Forties, when Barn Owl numbers really went downhill. Today, the Barn Owl Conservation Network is recreating the Barn Owl's habitat, restoring rough grassland, advising farmers keen to protect them over nest boxes. It has managed to stabilize the Barn Owl population. But Barn Owls are fatally accident-prone. Like all birds of prey, they die from pesticides and rodenticides, they also tumble into steep-sided water-troughs and drown: "But traffic is the biggest killer," said Terry. "See how Sid flies? Really close to the ground. He'll fly over a hedge and swoop down low again the other side, straight bang into traffic. Also," he said sadly, "they are attracted by car headlights."

But there are loads of captive-born Barn Owls in Britain today. Can't they be let out into the wild?

Release into the wild is always dicey, especially with predators. You have to know what you are doing, and ask if the habitat will support it. No point, for instance, in re-introducing a monster like Chunky.

Since January 1993, you need a Department of the Environment licence to release Barn Owls into the wild. You have to prove the habitat will sustain it, plant hedgerows, stop neighbouring farmers using rodenticides, provide nest sites, and take full responsibility for the owl, like a pre-school child, until it's absolutely independent.

If it ever is. For in talking owls, you are talking conservation. Many owls, here and elsewhere, are nearly extinct in the wild. In the Owl Sanctuary bookshop I unearthed a set of photos of dead Barn Owls: one horizontal in a field, curled-up talons pointing at its poisoned belly; one frozen in a cattle trough; one a flop of feathers on a road.

Despite that rich mix of age-old owl-associations in our minds, there's nothing magical or comical about all this: just sad.

But the fear owls have always suggested: that's around alright, or should be. Owls are, after all, a sort of portent. Not superstitiously - not an omen for the murder of a king - but environmentally. Like all birds of prey, they are top of the food chain and so an marker of an environment's health. What happens to them is an early warning of worsening pollution.

So those concentrically ringed eyes - lemon yellow, orange, red-gold, boot-button black - bent upon us in the dark from a weirdly humanoid face, may be looking at an approaching environmental night: the gaze of a stony-eyed Gorgon we have created, foretelling disaster. Unless, like the Barn Owl Conservation Network and other impassioned enthusiasts, we look further into the future and try, like owls carved optimistically on Chinese rooftops, to ward off the lightning of environmental death.