Meeting with Owls – Whispers, hoots, and shrieks

Barred Owl

Here in the Haliburton Highlands, it’s not uncommon to hear owls hooting at night.

They call out to one another across the distance, through the darkness, in and around the forests that surround our house.

Calls range from high-pitched screeching vocals to the more familiar, low-throated husky hoots, put forth with rippled tones that can only be heard in their entirety if both they and you are perched near the same open window.

Depending on your point of view, an owl’s call can be thrilling or bone chilling. I choose the former!

Very recently I was over the moon after spying, quite by chance, a Barred owl perched, napping really, on a dead lower branch in an oak tree behind our home. It’s a rare occasion to see an owl up close during daylight hours. Even more of a thrill than hearing one at night.

Snowy Owl

The first owl I ever saw, a Snowy owl, occurred only months after moving to the country from Toronto. It was one of those exceptional winters where the snow never seemed to stop accumulating, and due to the extremely cold temps, Snowy owls ventured further south than usual in search of food.

While waiting at our driveway for my son, arriving home momentarily on the school bus, I spotted that Snowy owl in another tree near our house. Magnificent to say the least, I couldn’t wait to point out the owl to my son, who by now was climbing down the steps of the bus.  As we approached the house, and consequently the owl, it took flight, heading directly towards us, swooping not far above our heads, with the soft sound of feathers in flight as we watched it disappear in to the woods beyond.

My son, a youthful old soul, declared that owl was welcoming us to our new home. I describe this as a moment of bliss, where a mother and her child share a real treasure from nature, and a moment I’ll never forget. But, I digress…

Back to the Barred owl, I found myself stating out loud, “Don’t go anywhere. I have to find my camera!”, despite the fact that the window was closed, and the tree this owl occupied is 40 feet from our house. I suspect my cat Luna, the only audience within earshot, must have thought I was speaking to her, and in hindsight, she must have been wondering what the hell I was doing, camping out in the bathroom for such a long time.

It did occur to me at the time that I was forest bathing in the bathroom!

In any case, camera in hand, I grabbed the kitchen stool and shuttled on to the bathroom, where that particular window offered a better angle and view with which to attempt photographing this lovely creature. Sitting on that hard chair on and off for six hours, balancing the camera on the windowsill held steady with a lavender sachet as a prop, I took way too many photos and enjoyed every moment. The best part for me was when the owl flew away. If you’re interested, I had the forethought to capture it here on video.

As an artist,  I’ve depicted them in paintings and sculpture. For some reason, perhaps due to the mystique surrounding them, (among other creatures), they pique my curiosity and have been some sort of a muse over the years. I’ve tried my hand at producing creative depictions of them in various ways, including writing this post!

With this affinity for owls, and like many little girls, I was inducted to the Guides organization as a Brownie. I remember noting how all the group leader’s names were some sort of owl. My friend’s mother who volunteered was ‘Tawny Owl’. I really liked her, and perhaps because of this, I’ve never considered owls to be in any way threatening.

Think of the wise old owl in Winnie the Pooh who wasn’t in anyway threatening. More likely the voice of reason in that blustery, one hundred acre wood.

The owl’s reputation has been much maligned and misunderstood over the centuries. Their appearance, discredited by mankind, has unfairly earned owls negative connotations throughout history. Some of the myth and folklore surrounding them has sadly saddled them with all sorts of insidious labels.

Owl superstitions vary slightly, and each one is interesting, but as a general consensus European folklore especially, foretells that simply hearing an owl can lead to all manners of horrible things including death, war, destruction, pestilence, and more.

Ovid speaks despairingly of owls in his fifth book of ‘The Metamorphoses’, stating “Ignavus bubo, dirum mortalibus omen“, which (thanks to Google translator) loosely means, “Screech owl of evil omen”.

That’s a heavy burden for any creature to bear!

The owl is connected with birth. An ancient belief in England states that an owl appearing near the birth of a child foreboded ill luck to that infant for life.

Shakespeare alludes to this in Henry VI, part III, Act V. sc. vi, where the King, addressing Gloucester, says “The owl shrieked at thy birth, an evil sign.”

Shakespeare again alludes to the owl, this time in connection with magic. In Macbeth, the Witches are careful to introduce the ‘owlet’s wing’ into the bubbling cauldron.

In some areas of China, the owl’s voice is said to resemble the voice of a spirit or demon. Some equate its call with digging a grave, which may account for the lore that an owl’s cry portending someone’s death.

Because an owl’s Gaelic name is Ullaid, (and if you’ll humour me), I do wonder if there’s some connection between the Gauls and Celtic people to Homer’s Iliad. Due to Athena’s connection with that particular literary work, and her affinity with owls, this bird is often referred to as the “owl of Athena”.

Because of this, owls are still used as a symbol of knowledge and wisdom throughout the Western world. Back to the wise owl in Winnie the Pooh! In any case, naïve as it may sound, the two words Ullaid and Iliad side by side always struck me as something worth pondering.

As a spirit animal, the owl represents female energy, it’s connected to the moon, a messenger of truth, and with reference (and reverence) for North American Native Shamanic knowledge and their teachings, owls relate to the Medicine Wheel where the lesson is about removing pride and offering tolerance instead. Something, many people could take note of these days… Just sayin’.

Owls help keep the rodent population down and they’re terrific parents. Simply put, they’re beautiful birds. And, whether it’s wisdom or death, liberty or war, I’m sure the owl will continue to fascinate us for a long time to come.

The myth of this bird contains both dark and light, a balance, just like the two wings any bird requires for flight. As for me, I do hope for another visit from this, and other remarkable creatures, sometime in the near future.


References

  • Snowy Owl – Wikipedia
  • The folk lore and provincial names of British birds, by Swainson, C. A. (Charles Anthony), 1820-1887
    Published, 1886
  • Gaelic names of beasts, birds, fishes, insects, reptiles, etc. in two parts: by Forbes, Alexander Robert, Published, 1905
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses, With an English Translation by Frank Justus Miller, In Two Volumes
    Harvard University Press, Second edition, 1921
  • Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth. A glossary of Greek birds. Oxford, Clarendon Press 1895, pp 45-46.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (2001). Robbins Dexter, Mirijam, ed. The living goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 157–158. ISBN 9780520927094
  • Image of Athena holding a helmet and a spear, with an owl. Attributed to the Brygos Painter (circa 490–480 BC). The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Animal Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small,  by Ted Andrews

Grackles galore and a wave of wings

Spring arrived on the wings of birds yesterday, by way of many Grackles who made themselves known to me by sound, before I could actually see them.

My far off photo doesn’t do these lovely birds justice.  One really has to appreciate Grackles by seeing them up close.  Quite impossible to see their glossy blue heads and iridescent bodies from this distance. They’re actually quite beautiful birds!

The amount of Grackles I could offer here by way of a photo is just the tip of the iceberg, too. There must have been at least 80 birds and counting as I watched their compatriots arriving in a winged wave.

As they announced themselves to anyone and everyone in the vicinity, movie buffs might almost sense Alfred Hitchcock’s ghost lurking about! But no,  an eerie feeling of impending doom wasn’t felt from these exuberant feathered friends. Quite the opposite! More like a convivial banter and a salutation of spring.

Gardening for pollinators and other wildlife

When we strike a balance with nature, creatures of all shapes and sizes with whom we share our neck of the woods all benefit, so it’s a win-win!

When we seek to create a garden, it can become a hub of activity, much of it we may not even be aware of, but activity that caters to wildlife. If we are mindful of life beyond ourselves and provide eco friendly spaces for other living creatures, we offer refuge to many a beneficial visitor.

Insects, birds, and smaller mammals begin to thrive, visit and maybe even take up residence! That’s usually because creatures smaller than themselves are also in the vicinity, offering a food source, so the chain of life begins.

Spring is an ideal time to embrace local biodiversity. We gardeners can see the effects of our handiwork in our own plots.

Perhaps not overnight, but over the course of a season when our yards yield evidence of the wildlife we’ve attracted. This is done when we create a natural space in which they can prosper.

Take the humble bumblebee. I’m going to risk the raising of eyebrows from fellow dog lovers and state that bees are up there with our pooches as ‘man’s best friend’! But seriously, some hard working pollinators might seem scary to a few folk, but they very rarely sting and if they do, it’s as a last line of defence. Beyond that caveat, a bee’s hard work and importance to us as a species cannot be overstated.

Can you imagine a garden without flowers? Or an orchard without fruit? In some parts of the world, this dystopian outlook is closer to reality than we might fear…

Approximately 80 percent of food crops grown around the world require pollination and that’s mainly done by the hardworking bee. Unfortunately bees are having a particularly hard time at the moment. It has become entirely clear to many that habitat loss and the use of pesticides and herbicides, mainly by big Ag are the main contributor to our loss of bees. (I believe Monarch butterflies may also fall victim to these practices for similar reasons, but I digress..).

Millions of bees have died and this disturbing occurrence is not just taking place in North America, but all over the world. Because of this, it’s crucial that we gardeners plant our plots to ensure the survival of the bee. We can offer them a safe haven from chemicals, and considering just how important they are with respect to our food supply, the consequences could be devastating to say the least, so our help no matter how small is vital.

We can help by offering bees, and other pollinators, plants that are attractive to them when  foraging for food. Consider growing bee balm (Monarda) in the garden. It’s an excellent choice and certainly lives up to its name! The bonus is, bee balm is extremely appealing to hummingbirds and butterflies, too!

Just off the top of my head, I’d like to name several varieties in my garden that I’ve found appeal to bees and other creatures:

Aconitum (Monkshood), Chives , Dandelions,  Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), Digitalis (Foxglove), Bearded Iris, Lupinus X polyphylla (Lupine) Physostegia virginiana (Obedient Plant), Pulmonaria (Lungwort), Sunflowers, Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), Hollyhocks, and Gaillardia, just for starters! Of course the best thing any gardener can do is to have a progression of blooms throughout the growing season, which is a tall order for even the seasoned gardener, but definitely a great goal to have.

The same gardening practices that attract and help wildlife also improve our air, water and soil quality. The benefit goes beyond our gardens, and it only takes a few plants and some forethought to create these habitats.

We can even attract creatures to our garden by adding a couple of containers with some flowering annuals. Gardeners with limited space may even want to plant vertically. Using wall space, arbors or fences to grow perennial vines like honeysuckle, Virginia creeper or annuals like sweet pea, morning glory, or scarlet runner beans and even hanging baskets will woo pollinators.

If you’re ambitious, consider selecting a wide variety of plants that provide blooms from early spring into late fall. Hummingbirds happen to prefer red tubular flowers and will visit all season long for them. Butterflies are usually drawn to more open-faced yellow and purple flowers, as well as herbs like lavender, dill, thyme, oregano and parsley.

Many herbs can be grown in containers in the smallest of garden like a balcony or windowsill. And I’ve yet to mention native plants, which offers the ultimate gift to wildlife as they are even more attractive a food source for local pollinators than anything else one could grow.

By making a conscious effort to not use harmful chemicals in the garden we encourage beneficial insects like ladybugs to visit, who happen to eat aphids! Toads and frogs are great allies in the garden as well since they eat slugs and grasshoppers. For them, I have a couple broken clay pots turned upside down, which offers these creatures some shelter during rainstorms. I also strategically place large seashells in the garden which collect water to offer them a drink on a hot day.

With very little maintenance, the garden will be a welcome haven for all kinds of insects and birds, and wildlife, while adding beauty and creating sustainability at the same time. Whether it’s mulching beds, reducing the size of lawn, which happens to be the most unnatural landscape of all considering the chemicals and water use that go into maintaining one, or by harvesting rainwater in a barrel for use on annual containers, we all benefit by preserving the environment and creating an ecological balance in our own backyard. Remember, preserving the environment is one of the most fundamental elements of gardening.

Have fun in the garden, and at the same time lend a helping hand, and those green thumbs to the pollinators in your neck of the woods. 🙂