Owls, harbingers of death or symbols of wisdom? by Maggie Tideswell


Owl 1

I have written ghosts in the past, but they aren’t all I am interested in. Owls are another passion of mine and are repeatedly used in my novels. My owls always act in unusual ways, for instance they fly together in a swarm, which they never do in real life; they attack humans, which is highly unlikely; and they guard or protect a human being, which is also not in their nature. That is the fun part of being a novelist. To serve the purpose of my story, owls may behave in any way I want them to, although I mostly stick to the known facts.

We all knowBarn Owl the basics of owls. They are birds known for their distinctive call, they are nocturnal and their flight is silent, and deadly if you are a tiny creature. Owls are right up there with bats and spiders as the most popular creatures of Halloween.

Owls are classified into two categories: barn owls have a heart shaped face, and true owls have a round face. In each category there are of course several species; 16 Barn Owl species and 190 True Owl species, to be exact. Owls don’t build nests, but make their home using anything that is convenient, from a nest built in the ground by other birds or burrowing animals, to a nook in a tree, to old abandoned buildings.

 Owls are carnivorous and will eat rodents, small mammals, nocturnal insects, fish and even other birds. After digesting their food, owls regurgitate hard pellets of compressed bones, fur, teeth, feathers and other materials they couldn’t digest. A barn owl can eat up to 1,000 mice each year, and farmers try to attract barn owls to help control rodent populations in agricultural fields.

Most people will know that owls’ eyes are fixed in their sockets, so that they have to turn their whole head to find their prey. You might have heard the tall tale that, because of their fixed eyes, should you circle an owl, it will wring its own neck watching you. As the owl can only turn its head 260 degrees, this claim is impossible. Because their eyes are fixed, they have binocular vision, a necessity for hunting in the dark. An owl has three eyelids: one for blinking, one for sleeping and one for keeping the eye clean and lubricated.

Owls have asymmetrical ears that are different sizes and different heights on their heads. This gives the birds superior hearing and the ability to pinpoint where the prey is even before they can see it. The flattened facial disk of an owl funnels sound to the bird’s ears and magnifies it as much as ten times to help the bird hear noises humans can’t detect.

Some owhorned owll species have “ear” tufts on their heads but they aren’t ears at all. These tufts of feathers may indicate the bird’s mood and help keep it camouflaged.

Owls have zygodactyl feet, which means they have two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backward. This gives them a stronger, more powerful grip on their prey. Their feathers have been especially adapted to muffle the sounds of flying. Their broad wingspan and light bodies helps to make them nearly silent in flight. Handy for stalking prey.

For most owl species, females are larger, heavier and more aggressive than the males and she is also the most colorful.

Owls don’t only hoot, but are capable of a wide range of sounds, such as screeches, whistles, barks and hisses. During the nesting season, an owl’s calls can often be heard up to a mile away. And they sing duets with their breeding partner, whom they mate with for life.

Did you know that a group of owls is called a parliament?

Owls have been found in the fossil record up to 58 million years ago. The largest recorded owl fossil, Orinmegalonyx oteroi, stood about three feet tall. Owl images have been found in cave paintings in France, in Egyptian hieroglyphics and even in Mayan art. Most cultures focused on the dark aspect of the owl, mainly because of man’s inherent fear of the dark. Because the owl is nocturnal, and the medical fact that most deaths occur at night, the owl became associated with death.

The biggest modern threats to owls are habitat loss, pesticides that poison the birds and their food supplies, and human persecution because of negative superstitions.


Unfortunately for the owl, they have been much maligned by folklore and superstition. In ancient Greek mythology, Athena, goddess of the Underworld and Wisdom, had a companion owl on her shoulder, which revealed unseen truths to her. The Japanese believe the owl warns them of impending danger. In Celtic folklore the owl was sacred and endowed with magical powers. To the Welsh, the owl symbolized death, renewal and wisdom. Today, owl superstitions still associate the birds with bad luck, death and stealing souls in many cultures.

In paganism, the owl is associated with the goddess, wisdom, Underworld deities and prophecy. Owl symbolism used in meditation and ritual can help you interpret dreams, unmask those who would deceive you and find hidden spiritual truths.

For me personally, hearing an owl hoot at night means something good is about to happen.


Bio: Maggie Tideswell’s specialty is supernatural romance. Her novels are set in her homeland of South Africa. learn more at  https://www.amazon.com/author/maggietideswell

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14 thoughts on “Owls, harbingers of death or symbols of wisdom? by Maggie Tideswell

  1. Clayton Bye Post author

    Hi Maggie,

    Just wanted to say I found your piece both interesting and informative–the perfect combination!

  2. Kenneth Weene

    As a kid, one of my favorite things at the Boston Museum of Science was the owl, a live rescued bird they kept for teaching purposes instead of housing him in a zoo. Now, living in AZ, I get to see owls perched on trees waiting to hunt, Marvelous birds.

  3. Salvatore Buttaci

    Maggie, an excellent piece about the owl! It’s a favorite of my wife whose Big Creek High School in War, WV, had the owl as their mascot. Are they truly wise? Of course! Show me an animal that isn’t, right?

  4. Martha Love

    Maggie, my family shares your love of owls. Now I have a few dinner table facts about owls to share, thanks to your informative article, and I certainly enjoyed reading all you had to say.

    The house in which we lived in Northern California had an old tower in the backyard and a large family of owls lived in that tower. You are so right about the many different sounds they can make. I remember a number of times being outside in the yard and having one of the owls screech at us from above in some odd ways. We loved our owls and I imagine that they are still inhabiting that old tower! When we moved to Oahu, Hawaii, I was happy to find that they live here too, out away from Honolulu in the more country areas. I have always thought they bring good luck!

    1. Maggie

      I believe that too. I have had owls close by in most of the places I’ve lived in. Marvelous creatures. Thank you for your comment, Martha.

  5. Trish Jackson

    Maggie, I love this article. Owls are amazing and you presented some fascinating facts about them. Our home is surrounded by enormous oaks and pines, and I love lying awake at night and hearing the great horned owls calling to one another. Also, when we visit San Diego, CA, we hike in the San Dieguito River Park, where they have set up several owl nesting boxes to encourage owls to breed, which is very heartening.

  6. Micki Peluso

    Maggie, owls are my favorite bird. I have statues of various sizes of them all over my house. I’m always comforted by the eerie hooting of the owls at night–a soulful, sometime sorrowful song. I wrote a short piece on my meditation garden–imaginary of course–and the first animal I meet there is a snow owl with a sarcastic mouth. I’m assuming she is my sub-conscious mind because she constantly psychoanalyzes me, and takes no nonsense. She says I already have the answers to my problems so just do it!! Other animals share my meditation garden, with dfferent parts of me–like the alpha blue wolf who gives me courage, the little mouse who tugs on my sleeve, with ‘important stuff to tell me’, and my humourous side–the white duck that yells, AFLACK” claiming he’s insurance that I’ll be all right. But it is the haughty snow owl that rules the roost. I loved this piece and learned many things I didn’t know.


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