Owls by convention represent wisdom, and are believed by others to be ill omens, harbingers of misfortune. Symbols, like their makers, are often self-contradictory. The owl’s nocturnal habits likely explain both associations. Ornithologists tell us owls are some of nature’s most savage and efficient hunters – a quality that contradicts neither wisdom nor predictions of calamity. In his essay “A Pharisee to Pharisees” (Collected Critical Writings, 2009), Geoffrey Hill looks at Henry Vaughan’s “The Night” and notes that Vaughan describes “God’s silent, searching flight,” during which He emits “His still, soft call.” Hill says God “comes like a mousing owl over the field.” On the cover of his 2011 collection Clavics (Enitharmon Press), Hill reproduces a photograph, “Heraldic Attitude Adopted by Barn Owl” (c. 1944-47) by Eric Hosking – “a [successful] mousing owl.”
On a less exalted plane dwells the screech owl. Even non-birders use the name to describe the unignorably whiny and loud who herald misfortune to their listeners. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck sings: “Whilst the scriech-owle, scrieching lowd, / Puts the wretch, that lyes in woe, / In remembrance of a shrowde.” By Dr. Johnson’s day, habitual complainers and doomsayers were commonly known as screech owls. In The Rambler #59, published on this date, Oct. 9, in 1750, Johnson writes:
“These screech-owls seem to be settled in an opinion that the great business of life is to complain, and that they were born for no other purpose than to disturb the happiness of others, to lessen the little comforts, and shorten the short pleasures of our condition, by painful remembrances of the past, or melancholy prognosticks of the future; their only care is to crush the rising hope, to damp the kindling transport, and allay the golden hours of gaiety with the hateful dross of grief and suspicion.”
Off the top of your head, how many people can you name, in private and public life, who fit that description?