Limnos, Greece - August 2003
According to history
Moving on to modern times, we find the Little Owl also linked to science. One of the fathers of iridology, the Hungarian Ignaz von Peczeley (1826-1911), was 11 years old when, upon trying to release an owl (Athene noctua noctua) that was trapped in the garden of his parents’ home, accidentally broke the owl’s left leg. As a result, he kept the bird in order to mend its leg. Immediately after the accident Ignaz noticed a dark line on the lower part of the left eye. As the days went by, the mark slowly softened until it totally disappeared with the full recovery of the bird. After the successful recovery, Ignaz released the Little Owl only to find that it had decided to nestle in his large garden for the remaining years of its life. This incident would spark off Ignaz von Peczely’s interest in medicine and would eventually lead to his close study of iridology.
In contrast with other birds, the Little Owl has a large head with an almost flat face and big eyes, which like all other Strigidae members are locked within their sockets looking forward. The colour of the eyes is indicative of when a bird may be active. Those which can hunt with the light of day, like the Little Owl, have yellow eyes and are semi nocturnal whereas those who hunt mostly at night, such as the Barn Owl have dark eyes and are nocturnal. In order to take full advantage of the existing light, the eye has taken a conical shape instead of a spherical one with the back part ending in a point allowing the owl to see with very little light. However, the owl’s eyes are fixed within their sockets forcing the owl to turn its head towards the direction it needs to see instead of its eyes.
Another disadvantage arising from this particularity is the existence of astigmatism which means the owl cannot focus so it needs to feel its food with a special set of feathers called crines which are found around its beak. Like most birds of prey the Little Owl is equipped with a very sharp convex beak and very strong and lethal claws with which it mainly catches large insects, frogs, lizards and on rare occasions, usually during the mating season, rodents. What is not well known is that behind each of its three claws there is a large groove. In the early days of ornithology some believed that the grooves existed so the prey’s blood could flow freely bringing its death sooner and effectively, but these days there seems be a lot of doubt as to whether this holds true. What has also been recorded is that with prey such as rodents, the Little Owl will pierce the back part of their head with its strong beak bringing an instant death.
Usually during February the Little Owl searches for its own territory without building a nest of its own, consequently relying on existing nests or cavities whether they are in trees or in the ground. I’ve seen it use ground tunnels dug by other animals such as rabbits and moles, as well as barns and other buildings. Every bird will have 3-4 safe-holes in its territory to choose from should danger arise. Later during the mating season in March the pair will decide which safe-hole to use as its main nest and the otherwise very quiet Little Owl, can be heard day and night as the male engages in its courtship. By the end of April, the female will have laid 3-5 eggs which will need 4 weeks to hatch. While she incubates, the male will supply her with food. After the eggs have hatched both parents will continue to care for their young for another 5-7 weeks until the young become independent and set off to their own territories. The fact that the Little Owl is semi-nocturnal means that it is often sighted during daylight sitting erect and motionless on posts, fences, stonewalls, trees and other places. Luckily for the Little Owl, its stillness together with its earthly colours, provide an excellent camouflage allowing the bird to remain unnoticed even when it is right in front of us.
The last meeting
It’s late August and the northeasterly winds are blowing 4 to 5 beau fort among the thistles and barbed wire fences. The whirring sound of the wind adds surround sound to an image that perfectly depicts the uniqueness of this “barren island” on which I stand. I’m in position and have set up my gear as the sun is now throwing its first rays on the dry ground before me. The motionless Little Owl, is spotted at the entrance of the pen. This safe-hole leads into the main storage area where the chaff is stored. This spot does not provide for safe nesting, but its existence is valuable for escaping danger and a good place to find a plethora of insects and rodents. As the Little Owl stood there half asleep it suddenly stretched its body with eyes wide open, bent its knees and bounced into flight. The Little Owl flew across to a tall post overlooking the waterhole of the farm where some chickens were busy picking the ground for food.
From this position the Little Owl could closely process all sounds reaching its ears. It has eyes and ears suitably adapted for hunting in dark conditions but in total darkness, its acute sense of hearing is used exclusively in place of its sight. As soon as it detects its prey lurking it quickly bobs its head in that direction. With its wide face functioning as a radar it collects and processes all sounds from the chosen area. Once it pinpoints the sound source and can make out its prey, it will wait for one more sound before it finally attacks. An important role in the precision of its “sound-radar system” is the skewed placement of its ears. The right ear is placed higher than the left and as a result the sound reaching the second ear is delayed by tenths of a second. The time difference between the detection of the same sound by both ears accurately determines the exact location of the sound source. An important role is also played by the sensitive feathers on its face that are positioned in such a way as to guide sounds towards the ears. It is said that the range of this “radar system” is about 15 meters. The owl also has the ability to filter out any unwanted noise, either natural or manmade, allowing it to listen only to those sounds that are caused by the movement of its prey. It is impressive how it can sit so still without any sound drawing its attention unless it’s a familiar sound.
Grabbing hold of my tripod, I stand up and slowly move towards my subject. Its behaviour quickly changes and becomes suspicious. It crouches and bows in a steady and fast pace. Once in position I freeze and the owl stops making its frantic movements. A few seconds go past, maybe even a whole minute, appeased, it returns to its relaxed position continuing to process all sounds coming from the waterhole as if I wasn’t even there. Then, suddenly it stretches and jumps from the post flying low to the ground and landing on its favourite rock inside the farmyard. Standing tall and motionless directly in front of the waterhole it now has a complete view of her hunting ground.
As the discontinuous whistling of the NE wind stops momentarily I hear a familiar sound coming from the waterhole. A soft short splash reminds me that there are frogs in the water hole and looking at the little owl’s posture I realize that it too is familiar with them. The Little Owl dives towards the wet ground near the waterhole and lands amongst some weeds. It looks right and left as if to check whether anyone is looking and then it bends over biting something between its legs. If it were April or May it probably would have taken its prey back to the nest to feed the other family members. After the meal, it leaves its favorite rock and returns to the original fence post. A little time goes past and the vigilant owl starts changing its behavior once again. It now gives the impression that it’s tired, shutting its eyelids as if it were asleep standing. Every once in a while it opens its eyes and turns its head towards some sound that “awakes” it, and then relaxes again taking on its original stance with closed eyes.
After spending the whole month of August observing and photographing the Little Owl on the island of Limnos, I farewell them with the hope that I manage to return in early Spring so I can capture some photos of the whole family.
In my opinion, The Athene Noctua Indigena is a bird of true character and grace. The fact that its flat face with its two eyes at the front of its head remind us more of the human face than any other bird is maybe why there is such an attraction and why we are given the impression that it is intelligent or even wise. It’s a shame that some local people regard it as a symbol of bad luck and death, something that may better suit the Barn Owl (Tyto Alba). Thankfully, for the ancient Greeks it symbolized wisdom and was an emblem for the goddess Athena something, which I think this beautiful bird justly deserves.