OWLS – Embodiment of Wisdom or Portent of Evil?

An owl was the bird of Athena, the Goddess of the City of Athens, the protector of civilized life and the embodiment of wisdom, reason and purity. Even today many people refer to the kindly, wise old Owl.

Owls, however, have also been part of human folklore for thousands of years often heralding the advent of disaster or death.


“Deep night, dark night, the silent of the night,

The time when screech owls cry, and band-dogs howl,

And spirits walk, and ghosts break up their graves.” Henty V1-1,4.

In Roman times, the appearance of an owl during the day was considered an evil omen. Among the portents, preceding the assassination of Julius Caesar it was said that

“The bird of night did sit,

Even at noonday, upon the market place

Hooting and shrieking.”

Surprisingly, I have not been able to find much about owls in African folklore. It is generally believed, however, that an owl is a portent of death especially if heard hooting in the village, and even more so if it is on the roof. Owls are instrument s of witchcraft in some cultures.

There are several species of owl in and around Clarens the most common being the Spotted Eagle Owl. They are often heard in the evenings hooting from trees on the slopes below the sandstone cliffs to the west of Clarens. We do get Cape Eagle owls as well and their distinctive “wak wak wak” alarm call can sometimes be heard. The call sounds rather like a dog yapping but obviously, it is not a dog. Visitors to the bushveld areas will be familiar with the distinctive call of Scops owl.

Owls hunt a wide variety of prey: small birds, lizards, mice and rats, insects and the like. For this purpose they have very strong legs, claws and strong curved beaks. Most owls hunt at night and the structure of their eyes give them a heightened sense of vision in dim light. [Contrary to popular belief they cannot see in total darkness] Their hearing is well developed, as is their sense of smell, so they often hunt by sound or smell. Owls have large wingspans for swift attacks on prey and their feather structure is such that they can fly incredibly silently.

Owls are not all that easy to spot, except perhaps by experienced birders. Many people belong to the school of thought that see the owl as a benevolent avuncular figure full of wisdom, and take much pleasure in spotting them in the wild.

Friends of ours had some lovely “silkies” that regularly disappeared until none was left. The birds were kept in a secure pen except that it was not covered above. It is highly probable that owls swooped into the pen and carried off the chicks. The interesting thing is that there was no evidence of the attack; not a scuffle, not a loose feather; no evidence of the thief at all. Our friends are keen birders and I am sure do not belong to the school of thought that sees owls as portents of evil and would enjoy a good view of these magnificent birds.

References: Wikipedia.

Roberts ‘Birds of Southern Africa’

Newman’s “Bird Life in Southern Africa”