Owls appear frequently in mythology and folklore, carrying both good and bad meaning. In some cultures, they are keepers of sacred knowledge and symbols of wisdom, protection, healing and good luck. In others – probably because owls are nocturnal – they are associated with witchcraft and dark magick, carrying messages between sorcerers and the spirit world; an owl hanging around or hooting announces the presence of a shaman or witch. Some traditions – native North American, in particular – say that owls assist with divination and prophecy. These birds are even supposed to predict the weather: a screeching owl means foul weather is coming, and an owl heard during a storm predicts an abrupt change in conditions.
Owls have also long been omens of disaster and death. The Romans believed that if travellers dreamt about an owl, they would be robbed or shipwrecked. An owl was supposed to have foretold the death of Julius Caesar and other emperors. (The birds appear as doomsayers in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth, as well as works by Sir Walter Scott, Wordsworth and others.) It was believed that an owl flying past or calling at the window of a sick person predicted their imminent demise. An Appalachian superstition says that an owl flying by day brings bad news, and an owl calling at midnight foretells coming death. On Samhain night, when spirits roam the world, owls fly down to eat the souls of the dead.
I believe that owls are beautiful, wonderful beasts – and that imbues them with some kind of magick! I’m fortunate to have seen and heard many of the species occurring in southern Ontario, including Great Horned, Snowy, Barred, Eastern Screech, Boreal and Northern Saw-whet (our smallest, at 7” to 8” tall). I’m very certain I shall never see a wild Barn Owl, as they are incredibly rare and listed as endangered. And during a long-ago trip to England, I even heard a Tawny Owl outside our hotel! These birds are elegant, skillful hunters, and any encounter with one is very special.
I’ve had two such recent encounters, in fact, both whilst comfortably seated in my living room! Some of you may know that I started a new blog to showcase my writing a few weeks ago, and my first post was a ghost story. As I was putting the finishing touches on the post, I heard, through the slightly-ajar window next to me, an owl’s call in the night. I knew from its distinctive descending trill that it was an Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio), a species I’ve seen and heard several times before, but never outside the home we’ve occupied for 25 years. I listened to it “talking” (possibly calling to a partner) for several minutes, and even recorded it on my phone. I was mesmerized and felt so lucky to have heard from this captivating creature.
Over the next couple of weeks, I wrote another ghostly tale, finishing it just in time for Hallowe’en. I posted it a few minutes before midnight, and continued tweaking the post for another hour or so. It was in this quiet hour that – you guessed it – the wee screechie started calling again!
Well, I was bowled over, and, I have to say, just a little freaked out. Some people might say that the “coincidence” was interesting at most, but nothing other than normal. I don’t agree! The same owl (it had to be), calling for the first time as I worked on my first ghost story, then calling again as I worked on the second – at Hallowe’en, of all times – was so serendipitous that I’m still wondering at it!
Owls are non-migratory, so I’m hoping that this little owl will hang around; I know from the frequent presence of hawks that our suburban neighbourhood, with its trees, fields and even a golf course, will support birds of prey. My sister, whose gorgeous photos you see here, tells me to listen in late winter to early spring for the screech owl’s mating calls. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a pair set up their love-nest nearby?
Could this bird be some kind of totem, or spirit animal? I have decided to call this midnight visitor my Story Owl. I’m currently working on my third ghost story … what do you think will happen when it goes online???
If you would like to see more of Nancy’s nature photography, please visit her here.
Stay tuned for more owls of a different kind, coming soon!