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18 april 2011

Desmond Morris was a prominent early fan of the Reaktion Books Animal series, so it was natural for him to contribute a volume sooner or later. Morris is best known for writing about homo sapiens, but in his Reaktion title he takes on the owl, a ubiquitous but rarely-encountered specialist bird that keeps our yards free of rodents and our imaginations teeming with phantoms.

Morris starts with an observation: "Ask anyone . . . when they last saw an owl and they will pause, think hard and then say they can't remember. . . . When did they last see a live owl in the wild, in its natural state?" (7)

Not long ago, in my case. I was at one of those backyard events where toddlers race around and men stare at one another apprehensively over the necks of beer bottles. Somebody wandered into the brush to retrieve a toy, and beckoned the rest of us over. Four small owls sat motionless on branches above, looking down at us impassively. Their immobility was the oddest part. Normally you can't get close to a wild bird without the bird flying off (or more rarely, freaking out). These owls, however, were not only unafraid but indifferent. The composure of owls is certainly a major factor in how culture has viewed them: inscrutable, wise, terrifying. Owls are beloved and feared, seen as good omens and bad. It's not that nature is endlessly plastic and means whatever we read into it, necessarily. In this case, it's that owls are everywhere, but by their nature resist being known by other kinds of beings.

I assumed that my owls stared blankly at me because they couldn't see me. But Morris notes that owls see very well in daylight – often better than humans do. They don't get perturbed because, well, they just don't care about much of anything. Morris describes at length the phenomenon of other birds "mobbing" owls. Other birds have an innate hatred of owls, which is adaptive because owls eat lots of them. When an owl appears in the daytime, other birds crowd around it, swooping in and harassing the owl. The owl usually gets mildly annoyed, but sits there and submits to the treatment. I've seen crows mob hawks in midair, and it's more like aerial combat; the hawks give as good as they get. Owls, for whatever reason, have a propensity to hunker down and bear it.

One of the odder photos in Owl shows Pablo Picasso with his pet owl, hunkered down on his hand, bearing it. Owls do not make good pets. Florence Nightingale had one that she loved, but she rescued it and raised it from a chick, and it seems to have gone the way of wild animals who never had a chance to be wild. By contrast, Picasso's owl was just a mean ornery raptor in a cage. People look like their pets, and Picasso looked like the owl. He and the owl also looked like a painting Picasso made of the owl, which appears in the photograph. Sometimes art, life, and the artist imitate one another in a loop that can't be analyzed.

Morris, Desmond. Owl. London: Reaktion, 2009.