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Hoo-Hoo Am I? John Lewis-Stempel Uncovers The Secret Life of the Owl

Posted on 10th November 2017 by Martha Greengrass

Of all our native birds, the owl holds a special power over our imagination. For some a talisman of good fortune, others a harbinger of doom, the image of the owl is an omen that appears across our folklore; a sign of witchcraft, medicine, the weather, birth and death. In his latest book, The Secret Life of the Owl, John Lewis-Stempel goes in search of this enchanting and elusive guardian of the night. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, he introduces readers to the mysteries of this nocturnal voyager.

Night is desolation, and so is the unlimited woodland that is my natural home.

I carry out my life when you are asleep, so to you I am black magic. No witch’s potion is complete without a portion of my body. Ask Macbeth. 

I am among you. You chopped down my wildwoods, but I have moved into your parks and gardens. 

You do not see me, but in the dark I see you. You blunder in the blackness but I have eyes and ears beyond your ken. Put two lighted candles in a football stadium, let loose a mouse and I would see it. My skull is the size of a golf ball; my eyes are the size of a human child’s. If it were cave-black, I would merely detect the mouse’s scuttling on grass with my ears. 

I suppose, sometimes, you might catch a half-glimpse of me as I roost by day on a branch,  or in that half-light at eventide and dawn when I begin and end my killing spree. You cannot resist anthropomorphizing me. I am the wise one. I am WOL.  I am the bird after which Brownie troop leaders are named.

The old country people, marking my camouflaged likeness to tree bark, called me ‘wood owl’ or ‘beech owl’.

I think I sing. You, rudely, liken my chansoning to the howl of the wolf. The Romans called me Ulula, the Anglo-Saxons Ule.

Early winter is the prime time to hear me, when I stake my claim to territory and woo a mate. Then the shivering land is made colder still by my cries. 

If I fail to establish a personal fiefdom by late winter, either by superior fighting or calling, I am doomed.  To defend my won territory I will attack others of my kind (naturally), plus wandering dogs. Even trespassing humans. Once I attacked, beak and claw, the inquiring photographer-ornithologist Eric Hosking. And blinded forever an eye of his. 

Often:  I make others sing, a wailing requiem, as my talons gip and puncture their warm bodies. Then, the old nightmare of prey creatures, silent death from the sky, is realized. I am archaeopteryx. I swoop, from a branch, to kill.

There is a cave in the Ardèche in France known as the Grotte Chauvet. It is a ‘Paleolithic site of habitation’. The walls of the cave are decorated with childish, prehistoric artwork, including an incised image of  me.  

             You worship me. I fly by night. I ... I can reach the otherworld. 

             Me?  I am the Lord of the Night.              

             I am male Strix aluco. 

John Lewis-Stempel is the author of The Secret Life of the Owl.  He has twice won the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing, in 2015 with Meadowland, and in 2017 with Where Poppies Blow. His other books include the Radio 4 Book of the Week and Sunday Times top five bestseller The Running Hare

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