Sunday, October 15, 2017

Encounter with an owl




     If human eyes were as big as owl eyes, relative to our heads, they would be the size of oranges. Then maybe we, too, would be able to swivel our necks 270 degrees, the way owls can—out of necessity, since their eyes are not mobile eyeballs, like ours, but tube-shaped, like a pair of binoculars, ideal for hunting small animals from the air at night. 
     This is an Eastern Screech-Owl—the hyphen looks odd, but if it's good enough for Sibley's, it's good enough for me— encountered Friday on the south bank of the Chicago River, just west of Orleans. 
     I was hurrying to catch the 5:12, noticed a group of city dwellers along the riverbank, fishing—the Friends of the Chicago River, having an event—and then saw this fellow perched on the leather gauntlet of Natalie F., who works for the Brookfield Zoo. I detoured down the stairs to the river bank to take a closer look.
     Eastern Screech-Owls range across the entire United States east of the Rockies. Screech-Owls west of the Rockies are Western Screech-Owls, aptly enough, and almost identical, except they have no red varieties. Their loss, as the red is quite pretty.
      This owl, I was told, is named "Weasley," obviously a nod to the red-haired Weasley clan in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, whose use of owls as messengers has to count as one of the more creative uses of owls in fiction.
     Though not the only one. The best magic-based kids book series before Harry Potter also prominently features owls. In fact, chapter four of C.S. Lewis' "The Silver Chair," the fourth book of his Chronicles of Narnia, is called "A Parliament of Owls," his description of a gathering of owls to discuss their business of the day (and itself a pun on Chaucer's allegorical poem, "The Parliament of Fowls"). The term stuck as a collective noun to denote groupings of the bird.
     When our boys were growing up, my wife and I read them "Owl Babies," an excellent picture book by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson. It has a very simple plot. Three owlet—the term for young owls— siblings, delightfully named Sarah, Percy and Bill, wake to find their mother gone, and the entire plot is their fearful wait for her. (Though I'm not an expert, mom looks like a Spotted Owl to me).
"Malle Babbe" by Frans Hall
     Publisher's Weekly called the book "hauntingly lovely," and years ago, when I went over for tea and chocolate cake at Ann Lander's East Lake Shore Drive condo, I brought her a copy of "Owl Babies" as a present, knowing she collects owl figurines and images. She was pleased with it.
      I'm tempted to sail off into owls in art, where they represent everything from the devil and madness, such as in Frans Hals "Malle Babbe," a 1630s painting of a drunken madwomen, to wisdom and calm. In ancient times Athena, the goddess of wisdom was often depicted with an owl mascot. 
    Well, maybe just a little side trip. The most famous ancient Greek coin, the tretradrachm, featured Athena on one side, and an owl on the other, starting the tradition of putting animals on the backs of coins, and in ancient times the coins were referred to as Owls. 
     Coveting the thing and wondering how available they are, I went on eBay, and was surprised to see specimens of the 2500-year-old silver coin for as little as $400. Then again, the owl tetradrachma is perhaps the most forged coin of all time, so buyer beware.
    I think I'll do without. Besides, there is no need to spend big bucks and reach back into antiquity to find what may or may not be an authentic  Greek owl coin. Greece struck a number of modern versions, including 1 and 2 drachma coins, issued by the military junta in 1973, a nice example of which can be had on eBay for $4.
     



16 comments:

  1. I once saw a GIF of an owl swooping out of nowhere at night and snatching a pigeon from a nest. You could see its eyes glowing in the distance as it approached the nest. What was weird was that the other pigeons barely even turned their heads as their comrade was snatched away. I guess they're pretty stupid birds.

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  2. I'm not sure. We tend to anthropomorphize animals. Imagine if the pigeons got upset every time one of their number went down. "Oh no, they got Randolph!" And when you look at people—Las Vegas was, what, two weeks ago?—we can be pretty indifferent ourselves, after the initial display of shock.

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    1. Bitter Scribe is right. Pigeons aren't the brightest crayons in the box. I used to know a guy who sold them to hunting clubs. He'd go down to the railyards with a giant net that somehow shot out over the birds as they were feeding. Then he'd crate them up, strap the crates to the open bed of a truck, and drive down the expressway. All the while, the birds acted as if nothing unusual was happening.

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    2. The mind reels with metaphors regarding our current situation. Too easy.

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    3. Hence the saying "Ignorance is bliss".😏

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    4. 11:59 and all's well in Trumplandia.

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    5. I'm not saying they should go into mourning, but you'd think they'd be at least a little aware of what was happening, for their own safety's sake.

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    6. Are we still talking about pigeons or have we moved on to the electorate?

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    7. It is getting a little hard to tell the difference, isn't it?

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    8. One of the unique things about owls is that they are virtually silent as they fly -- their wing control means they make very little sound while flapping/gliding, unlike most birds of prey. So pigeons -- which have the instinct to fly away if they _see_ wingspread -- are pretty much at the mercy of owls at night.

      Pigeons' instinct to take off when they see wingspread meant that when I was a grad student, a number of my colleagues got pretty good at making pigeons take off when they were dominating sidewalks and pathways, simply by raising their arms to imitate flight.

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    9. So that means that pigeons have better survival instincts than 46% of the voters in the last presidential election. Interesting.

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  3. I think pigeons get a bad rap -- well, except for the part about shitting all over everything -- which I suppose is the main rap, so maybe that's not a bad rap, after all. They seem pretty interesting in the design and coloration of their feathers, for lack of actual descriptive words to indicate whatever the hell I mean. Anyway, I find myself thinking that if they were rare instead of being ubiquitous nuisances, they'd be more appreciated for their beauty.

    Lamest comment ever? It's in the running! ; )

    Very nice photo and interesting stuff, though I still don't quite get what the Brookfield Zoo folks were doing downtown on the banks of the Chicago River with an owl...

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    1. Lame? Not at all. Doves are in the same family as pigeons and I'm always happy when they're nesting in the neighborhood. Their song is beautiful, haunting.

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  4. Because I feel compelled on this stuff: "The Parliament of Owls" is the fourth chapter of _The Silver Chair_, itself the fourth book of the Chronicles of Narnia. I think some words got lost in posting this.

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    1. Right you are. Much appreciated—I misread the source I was using. Fix made. Thanks.

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