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|
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.