Owls and omens (What’s the deal with owls?)

Once, when we were much younger, my sister told me of a bird her friend’s family had seen in their house.

“How can a bird turn its head 360°?!” she had asked in disbelief. Actually, the bird could only turn its head 270°.

confused owl
Photo Credit: Oladele 

But either way, such non-human head-turning was a bad omen. Therefore, the bird was killed.

I once heard my neighbour ask, after killing an owl which was resting in the daytime, “Why is it that it is only at night that this bird is active, if it is not a witchcraft bird?”

Owls are ill-fated creatures, especially in places (such as Nigeria) in which every mystery is attributed to the supernatural, and mystery almost always translates to danger. Therefore, we need to shed the light of knowledge and demystify these poor (and sorely persecuted) creatures because in the real sense, and based on scientific knowledge, owls are fascinating creatures.

Owls are animals that are specially adapted, with their very sensitive eyes and ears, and silent flight and camouflage, not just for nightlife, but for efficient predation in the dark. This is one of most unique and fascinating aspects of their life history. And it (their nocturnal habit) is perhaps, one of the scariest things about owls to Nigerians. The nocturnal adaptation of owls also helps them avoid competition from the many bird species which hunt in the daytime. Therefore, they are the perfect match for our pesky nocturnal pests which are also active at night.

Barn owl swooping - Tyto alba
Photo credit: Andy Harmer

Like most other predators, owls regulate the populations of the animals they feed on. What this means is; if we are good neighbours to the owls around us, we wouldn’t need to use so much rodenticides (which put our animal scavengers at risk anyway). Owls are an effective means of natural pest control, and feed on urban pest species such as rats and mice, which are prone to growth explosions.

In urban areas, owls come closer to us than they ever did when we still lived in villages (surrounded by natural environment such as forests). Often, some of us hear the barn owl snoring in our roofs.  This is because owls are taking advantage of the tall structures and abundant food in urban areas. They can build safe nests in tall structures and raise many babies with the abundance of food (in form of the pests that come to feed on our overflowing food stores and waste). In the natural environment, food could be really scarce; this is why they readily move in close proximity to humans.

This is not to cast an image of owls wearing halos, and dutifully carrying out pest control, and not making a nuisance of themselves.

Like any wild animal, an owl will defend itself and its family if it feels attacked, cornered or threatened. It will probably snore noisily while it sleeps in your roof (especially if it is a barn owl), and it might poo or regurgitate pellets on your newly painted walls. But we (humans) are not perfect either. If you are honest, your neighbour (or roommate, or whoever lives the closest to you) can point out something about you that really annoys them. So, we can always find a way to tolerate another annoying but helpful neighbour, can’t we?

Although owls are not angels, but are in fact, about as wild as any other brute beast, they also deserve to live and play their part in this beautiful home (earth’s cities/towns/forests) which we share with them, because owls are an important and fascinating aspect of the terrestrial ecosystem (the web of life on land).

If you live in an urban area in Nigeria, you are more likely to have the barn owl as your neighbour. If you live in a rural area, there are many other species. So, the next time you see (or hear) an owl or owls, by all means think of an omen. But when you think of an omen, think of a good omen: pest control, efficient pest control.

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