Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Birds as symbols of wisdom — and what the owl can tell us about ourselves

Folklore says owls are wise, but are they, really?

It’s commonplace to understand that owls are nocturnal.

But where did the wisdom characteristic of these birds originate — and why have we transferred that trait to humans who live long lives?

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The notion of owls as wise birds has its roots in Ancient Greece and mythology. 

“Owls have enthralled humanity for centuries, earning a reputation for wisdom that persists into modern society,” said Chad Witko, senior coordinator, avian biology of the National Audubon Society’s Migratory Bird Initiative, who is based in Windham County, Vermont. 

barred owl

A barred owl rests in a tree in the Atchafalya Basin in southern Louisiana. Barred owls are primarily nocturnal and usually sleep during the day. The notion of owls as wise birds has its roots in Ancient Greece and mythology.  (Jon G. Fuller/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

While some cultures view owls differently, many — including Western traditions — consider them symbols of wisdom, said Witko. 

“This perception finds roots partially in Ancient Greece, where Athena, the goddess of wisdom, is often depicted with an owl symbolizing her ability to see the whole truth,” he said. 

This perception of wisdom is deeply rooted in their biology, behavior and striking appearance, he also said. 

What does appearance have to do with it?

Unlike many birds with eyes on the sides of their heads, owls have forward-facing eyes set against a flat facial disc of feathers, resembling a human or child-like face, Witko told Fox News Digital. 

“Their large, fixed eyes and ability to rotate their heads up to 270 degrees give owls an appearance of attentiveness and observance,” he said.

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And if you’ve seen a perched owl, he said, “it is hard not to view them looking at us, peering through us as they sit calmly and take in the world with undivided attention.” 

What are some other attributes of these birds?

Owls possess remarkable hunting abilities, navigating the darkness with silent grace, said Witko. 

They boast specially adapted feathers that allow them to approach their prey undetected, while acute hearing helps them pinpoint movement in the open, under vegetation or beneath a layer of snow. 

Owl and pumpkin

An owl named Sindar, a long-eared owl, is shown getting ready for Halloween on a carved pumpkin at The Scottish Owl Centre. (SWNS)

“Despite these attributes, scientific studies on owl intelligence are limited compared to studies on birds like parrots, starlings and corvids,” he noted. 

“These birds are social creatures, which often equates to larger brains and higher intelligence to communicate with each other and build social systems.”

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Owls by nature are largely solitary outside the breeding season — and much of this bird’s brain is dedicated to increased abilities to see and hear and much less for problem-solving or social building, Witko told Fox News Digital.

Where are owls found?

Owls are adaptable birds and can live in many types of habitats

They’re found all over the world, from the Arctic to the tropics, and are able to survive in environments that would be difficult for other animals to live in, according to Medium. 

“Owls inhabit diverse habitats worldwide, on every continent except Antarctica.”

“Owls inhabit diverse habitats worldwide, on every continent except Antarctica, from the Arctic tundra to tropical rainforests, even major cities, with 247 species recognized globally,” said Witko. 

close-up of owl

Close-up portrait of a great horned owl. “Owls inhabit diverse habitats worldwide, on every continent except Antarctica, from the Arctic tundra to tropical rainforests.” (iStock)

The United States and Canada regularly host nearly 20 species, he said. 

Regardless of where they’re found, owls today face numerous conservation challenges — including habitat loss, climate change and exposure to pesticides and rodenticides, said Witko.

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“Understanding their movements through tracking technologies aids conservation efforts,” he said. “By learning more about owl migration, we can better conserve these majestic birds and the ecosystems they inhabit.” 

Why do we call older humans ‘wise old owls’? 

References to owls as being wise are found in everything from Homer’s “The Iliad” to “Winnie the Pooh” by A.A. Milne.

While it’s true they’re standout hunters in the food chain, owls probably aren’t any smarter than a lot of other birds, noted Mental Floss. 

Snowy Owl Washington Monuments

A rare snowy owl looks down from its perch high atop the large marble orb of the Christopher Columbus Memorial Fountain at the entrance to Union Station in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

One study even revealed that the species of great gray owls repeatedly failed a simple cognitive test — pulling a string to get a treat — that several other bird species had solved successfully, the same source said.

Still, though owls may not possess the intelligence of some birds or be wise in a human sense, Witko told Fox News Digital their unique adaptations and ecological importance make them “invaluable symbols of the natural world.” 

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Some of the folklore surrounding the assumption that owls are wise is spun from the nursery rhyme “A Wise Old Owl.” 

It reads: “A wise old owl lived in an oak. The more he saw, the less he spoke / The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?”

In American culture, there remains an association between wisdom and aging — which has its basis in biology. 

owl in tree

References to owls as wise are found in everything from Homer’s “The Iliad” to “Winnie the Pooh” by A.A. Milne — and references to older human beings as wise old owls continue to persist.  (iStock)

As humans age, the mind further develops — a direct byproduct of having lived longer and experienced more things, Psychology Today indicated. 

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“Older people are usually more proficient than young people in certain dimensions of cognition — particularly those that involve different ways to solve problems, as well as life planning and making future goals,” said the same source.

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