For the offended

What is this?

Sunday, April 11, 2021


     Friday evening, just before dinnertime, Kitty and I reach the apex of our walk and begin the turn back home. To our right, as we approach a particular house, there on the second story roof, standing tentatively, as one does on roofs, a family—a mom, dad and teenage daughter. They have obviously climbed out a back window and are now, cameras and binoculars in hand, looking at ... well, something. I turn and look too, and see a ... large pine tree. They're gazing intently at a tree, taking photos. Turning back to the family, I wait until one looks down at me.
     "Dare I ask?" I say, in what I hope is a tone of levity.
     "Owls," the dad replies. I look harder, and see the unmistakable silhouette of a great horned owl, peeking out of its nest toward the top of the tree. Someone from the family above says there are baby owls, too. But I can only see the parent, since its head pivots—owl eyes are shaped like tubes, not spheres, to concentrate more light, and so can barely move in their sockets. To see to the right or left, and owl has to turn its head to the right or left, and it can turn its head 180 degrees in either direction, so can look directly behind.
     "Cool!" I said, or some such exclamation, and stand there watching as well. I know my iPhone won't take much of a picture, but give it the old school try, and get, well, at least some documentary evidence. Twenty years tramping around the old leafy suburban paradise, and this is my second owl—now that I think of it, the first one, more than 15 years ago, was also at the prompting of a sharper-eyed neighbor, who came up behind me, grabbed me by my shoulders, and gave me a 15 degree turn, hissing softly, "An owl!" That may have been how we met.
     Not counting the elf owl I saw at the Northbrook bird sanctuary. That seems like cheating.
     The nest, by the way, almost certainly wasn't built by the owl itself, but a crow or hawk whose nest that the owl had taken over. Owls populate an area based, not on prey available, but housing, since gathering twigs and such is beneath them.
     That there is something dramatic about owls. The word in English is a very old onomatopoeia, from the Old English "ule," or ulula in Latin, intended to echo their cry. ("Ululate," comes from the same base, and "howl" is related).  
     Before that, of course, owls were celebrated in the ancient world. The owl represented Pallas Athena, and were considered wise for their solitude, for those large, all-seeing eyes.  Glaux is "owl" in Greek, and Homer calls Athena glaukopis, or owl-eyed, which is usually translated as "gray-eyed."
     Athens took the owl as its symbol You can see owls on some beautiful Athenian coins, such as the decadrachm, where the owl spreads her wings, as if protecting her nest, her home city by looking bigger, as owls do in nature.
 The tetradrachm is one of the most recognized ancient coins, minted in huge quantities, so much so that Athens ran out of silver and began minting them with copper, drawing hoots of ridicule from Aristophanes in his play, "Frogs."

Our silver coins, all of purest Athenian make,
All of perfect die and metal, all the fairest of the fair,
All of the unequaled workmanship, proved and valued everywhere
Both among our own Greeks and distant barbarians—
These we do not use. but the recent worthless base coins
Of vile character and basest metal, now we always use instead.

     So I guess we can take comfort that we are not the first nation to face decay, and a decline in our vaunted standards ... Okay, sorry, we've gone far afield from my intent, which was to say, "I saw an owl, owls are cool." 



  1. You would have made one hell of a teacher. Such a great love of learning should be shared.

  2. Last April in Watersmeet Woods (not far from NB), there was a heron rookery where a family of great horned owls had taken over one of the nests. It made for convenient feeding for their owlets (two, that I saw), but at the expense of heron chicks. Seeing a great blue heron attack and briefly drive off a great horned owl was memorable. I haven't been back to see whether either species has returned this year. One of the local habitat restoration volunteers told me about it. Friends of the Forest Preserves has hosted hikes that featured it.

  3. this piece is likely to draw quite a crowd to the leafy suburban paradise. owls are very popular.

  4. The wise old owl is not the only fowl associated in literature with an intellectual attribute. One thinks of a different bird summoned up I believe by Christopher Isherwood and accused of lacking foresight.

    "The common cormorant or shag
    Lays eggs inside a paper bag.
    The reason you will see no doubt.
    It is to keep the lightning out.
    But what these unobservant birds
    Have never noticed is that herds
    Of wandering bears may come with buns
    And steal the bags to hold the crumbs."


  5. One of my wife's college friends was a sorority member, who always wore a flat silver owl on a chain. An owl necklace is to a Chi Omega as the Star of David is to a Jew, and I always thought it made her look very cool.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.