In North America and Europe we consider owls to be symbols of knowledge and wisdom. This belief goes back thousands of years. The Greek goddess Athena (Minerva in the Roman pantheon) was the goddess of wisdom and war. Her symbol was that of an owl. More recently evidence of this continuing folklore comes in the shape of Owl, a character in the Winnie the Pooh stories by A.A. Milne.

Tootsie Pop Owl
Tootsie Pop Owl

Image via Medical Daily

When I was a child this myth was also taught to me through a particular bit of television advertising in which a kid went in search of an owl to find out how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop without biting into it. This particular owl takes three licks and then bites. Between the fallibility of both this owl and Winnie the Pooh's avian friend it was hard to really buy into the myth of owl wisdom. Even the fact that my high school newspaper being called The Owl failed to persuade me.

In other countries and cultures around the world the owl is an ill omen and represents misfortune, bad health, and even death. Perhaps this is because of the death and destruction the bird causes for rodent populations. Perhaps it is this same quality that leads to the idea of owl wisdom. Owls hunting to eradicate the devastation of rodents that would infest human food crops. What a smart thing for them to do! Of course they also look incredibly scholarly and pompous while waiting for their catch.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl

Image via Wikimedia

In India, for example, owls are actually considered quite dumb since they just sit and stare into space while awaiting their prey. Oolu, the Hindi word for owl, is even used as a slang term for a dolt or fool. A person loitering around with no apparent purpose is said to be sitting "like an owl."

Athene Noctua
Athene Noctua

Image via Wikimedia

Among the Kikuyu people of Kenya the owl is a portent of death. Among the Swahili people of East Africa the owl brought illness to children. Among the Zulu's of South Africa the owl was the bird of the witch doctor. In many Native American cultures the owl is the bearer of supernatural danger. Despite our belief of owls being wise, we also associate them with Halloween and a connection with the dead.

Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl

Image via Wikimedia

I had not realized these cultural differences until I I tripped over it. I had found a particularly beautiful picture of an owl and showed it to my boss at the time. She completely freaked out and wouldn't look at it. She had been born and raised in Tehran, Iran. Her Persian upbringing came with it a strong belief  that owls meant death. Strangely, not long after that the company we worked for went through a major negative shift and we both left -- a sort of metaphoric death of a situation.

Oddly enough, at that time, I had been having dreams that strongly featured owls. In one a beautiful snowy owl showed me how a beautiful garden had become rotten and riddled with insects. At that time I had also seen an owl for the first time in the wild -- just across the street from my home. It was this instance that drew me into being more curious about the iconic birds.

Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl

Image via Wikimedia

Scientific studies of owls have found that, while they are very good at being owls, they are not particularly smart creatures based on human measures of intelligence. They have very small brains compared to birds like crows and parrots. Researchers have been able to train other birds in tasks and memory, but owls seem to remain unable to be trained. When you think about it, cats are often reminiscent of owls and also have a reputation for being untrainable. We know now that cats can be trained. Perhaps we just haven't found the right way to train owls.

In other studies it was found that owls did show a certain intelligence in "tool" usage in several species of owls. For example, burrowing owls may place animal waste in front of their burrows to lure dung beetles near so that they can make a meal out of them. Now we have started using owls as tools by using them for pest control. Nesting boxes are placed in key areas, such as farmland, to encourage the owls to keep down rodent populations.

Horned Owl
Horned Owl

Image via Wikimedia

There are 216 species of owls in the world. They exist everywhere except for polar regions. It is not surprising that their existence is heavily intertwined with our cultures and histories.They are fairly quiet birds so it is also not surprising that our ancestors would be spooked by the haunting sound of their hoots. No wonder they created folklore and superstitions surrounding the birds and their sounds.

Barn Owl
Barn Owl

Image via Wikimedia

Were they wrong about the owls and their hooting being a harbinger of death? I'm not entirely sure. This past November my neighbor and I were out after dark hunting for my missing cat. As we were walking through my front yard we were suddenly aware that we were surrounded by owls in the trees that were hooting like mad. It was a very eerie feeling in an area where owls remain largely unseen and unheard. I was concerned about the meaning for my cat, but she returned home a couple of hours later. However, within the next couple of weeks a friend of ours died suddenly and mysteriously.

Winnie the Pooh and Owl
Winnie the Pooh and Owl

Image via Call Code

I am not  one given to superstition, but I am one to have had more than my share of encounters with the supernatural. Perhaps, in the vernacular of Native Americans, the owl is meant to be one of my totems, or spirit animals. That would be cool. I like owls.

By the way, the Tootsie Pop owl was wrong. It takes between 252 and 364 licks to reach the center of o Tootsie Pop -- according to scientific studies. It is amazing what science will waste its time on. Fortunately they spend it on good stuff too.

Sources: Mental Floss, NZG, Wikipedia, How Stuff Works, Medical Daily

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