Owl history with the Glen Helen Raptor Center

By Lisa Bennett

Photo: A pair of Screech Owls; photos: James Stewart

The full moon explodes with light on an otherwise dark and dreary set. An ethereal fog shrouds would-be villains, and off in the distance, the haunting cry of an owl pierces the darkness, sending shivers down the spines of viewers. Not long after sound was first heard in motion pictures in October 1927, the cries of owls, or more precisely, the cries of Screech Owls, took on the dubious task of inducing fear and suspense in viewers around the world. This new role added yet another layer to the already otherworldly myths and legends surrounding these noble birds.

Like eagles, owls are birds of prey, but their unique characteristics have propelled them into realms of mystery and dark imagination.

“In various different cultures, owls are kind of seen as evil or just bad luck,” says Rebecca Jaramillo, director of the Glen Helen Raptor Center in Yellow Springs. Though the “bad luck” myth is more common in the western United States, it can be found in virtually every corner of the globe. Believe it or not, some of the persistent myths about owls are untrue. For example, one myth abounds that all owls are strictly nocturnal creatures. While a large percentage of owls are nighttime predators, there are three types of owls that are strictly diurnal, meaning they hunt mainly during the day. The Northern Pygmy Owl is a tiny bird, growing to about six inches tall. Though typically found in cooler climates, the Pygmy Owl has made its home as far south as Honduras. The Northern Hawk Owl is a native of the northern climates of the world, including Canada, China, and Scandinavia. According to the “Audubon Guide to North American Birds,” the Northern Hawk Owl will sometimes find its way into the extreme northern parts of the United States. The Northern Hawk Owl is more than twice the size of its Pygmy competitor, growing to about 16 inches tall, with the female birds being just slightly larger than the males. The last, but certainly not the least, of the diurnal owls is the Snowy Owl. The largest of the three diurnal owls, the Snowy Owl is found in many Arctic regions. Though most Snowy Owls have specks of black or brown, their overall ghostly white appearance makes them the most ethereal of all.

Another common myth is that owls can move their eyes. The truth however, is that their eyes, which take up 75 percent of their heads, are fixed in their sockets, which is why owls can turn their heads so far.

“We can turn our heads about 90 degrees in each direction, and they can turn their heads about 270 degrees in each direction,” Jaramillo says. It’s no wonder owls are seen as creepy. Imagine looking at someone and having her turn her head completely around to look directly at you from behind! One can’t help but wonder if perhaps the inspiration for the oh-so-famous scene in “The Exorcist” in which a hapless Regan is seen turning her head like an owl and well, … you know the rest.

Not all myths and legends are sinister, however. According to New Age author Ted Andrews, the owl is associated with wisdom, prophecy, and intuitive knowledge. While many Native American legends regard the owl as a harbinger of death, some tribes like the Hopi see the owl in a less frightening light.  Considered a humorless lawman, the owl is the Hopi version of a cranky judge. Could it be that’s where the concept of the “wise, old owl” comes from? We may never know.

What we do know, however, is that the Glen Helen Raptor Center is working to bring knowledge about the owl—and the owls themselves—to the people through programs like Owl Photography, which gave amateur photographers a chance to capture the majestic birds close-up.

Without fundraising programs such as this, the Raptor Center would not exist and neither would chances for the public to experience these birds of prey.

“We don’t receive state or federal funding for any of what we do,” Jaramillo says. “So even the rehab, if someone calls us up and brings us an injured bird, there’s no state or federal funding to pay for the medicines, the food, the veterinary care, any of the care that that bird needs.”

The Glen Helen Raptor Center is located at 1075 OH-343 in Yellow Springs. For more information, please call 937.767.7648 or visit GlenHelen.org/Raptor-Center.


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Reach DCP freelance writer Lisa Bennett at LisaBennett@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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