It’s fantastic how owls really seem to capture people’s imagination. Perhaps it’s their eerie calls, or maybe their famous nocturnal habits, but something sets owls apart from other birds. They feature heavily in European folklore, often as the wise all-knowing creature of the forest, or as the familiars of witches and wizards. Many African cultures have superstitious beliefs surrounding owls too, the most notable being that they bring bad luck or are messengers warning of bad events to come. Popular belief says that an owl perching on your roof means that a member of the household will soon pass away.
From a naturalist’s point of view, owls are the most fascinating of birds. They boast many amazing adaptations that make them among the most efficient hunters in the bird world. Owls’ famous large eyes give them the ability to see very well in low light conditions, while the facial feathers in some species form a parabolic disc, amplifying sounds to aid already very acute hearing. In some species, ear openings are set atslightly different positions on the skull, giving the owl an unparalleled ability to accurately locate the source of any sound. An owl’s feathers are also beautifully designed for life in stealth mode; the trailing edges of the flight feathers have soft fluffy edges, rather than a straight rigid edge, which gives owls the ability to fly in almost total silence. No wonder they have left human observers in awe for centuries!
The Luangwa Valley is a perfect place to find owls. Varied habitats and high concentrations of prey make it an ideal habitat for many species, and of the 12 Southern African species, 11 have been recorded here – the Cape Eagle Owl being the only absentee. Even the extremely rare and most prized owl for enthusiastic birders, the Pel’s Fishing Owl, is frequently spotted on night drives.
Some years ago, I was living in a house that was actually a collection of round huts, built entirely from wooden poles and mud. One was a bedroom, another was the bathroom, a separate one served as a kitchen. The thickly wooded area along the Lake Kariba shore was perfect habitat for the African wood owl, Strix woodfordii. I knew there was at least one pair in the area, as I often heard their beautiful call during the night. They prefer thickly wooded habitat and are known for being heard but not often seen.
One evening I stepped out of the kitchen and stopped dead in my tracks at a most unexpected sight. I had a plastic garden furniture set – a table with six chairs that almost everybody is familiar with – and right in front of me were five wood owls, each perched on the back of a plastic garden chair! The collective noun for owls is a “parliament” and this lot really did look as if they were sitting around the table, solemnly debating national policy!
A little research explained the presence of this feathered gathering; breeding pairs are monogamous and territorial, with chicks taking about a month to leave the nest, and another 15 or so days to grow adult plumage. They stay close to the nest for another four months before becoming completely independent and moving away from the parents’ territory. So my feathered family were probably two parents and three older chicks who had yet to move to their own home range. After this I saw them very regularly in the garden at quite close quarters,and they became tolerant of my night time wanderings between the rooms of my mud hut house.
Then I made a serious mistake. A colleague of mine had invested in some seriously new-fangled technology – a digital camera. I don’t know how many of you remember the first generation? They were the same shape and size as a Polaroid camera and you had to insert a 3.5” floppy disc, which had the capacity for four or five very pixelated pictures. Well, I asked if I could borrow the camera one night to try to document my visitors. It was not a difficult task, as by this stage I was easily able to approach the owls, and they would perch quite calmly as I walked to within five metres of them. Unfortunately, on my first photographic attempt, I didn’t realise that I needed to switch off the automatic flash, and the poor owls were subjected to a sudden and startling camera flash that ruined our friendship forever. I will never know if they sat around my table in the middle of the night to discuss the situation, but it was clear by the next evening that they had decided to declare war on me!
As mentioned above, these owls are territorial, and they display aggression by dropping their wings and snapping their beaks at an intruder. Knowing this in no way prepared me for the full consequences of their wrath, however. From that night on, whenever I ventured from one section of the house to another, I would be targeted by a disgruntled owl. As I was walking, one would swoop down from behind, completely silently, and my first clue to it being there would be talons making contact with my scalp. They never actually hurt me – it was a very scratchy sort of head massage – but believe me, when you suddenly feel talons in your hair and look to see wings spreading out above you in the dark, it is a VERY unnerving experience! Eventually it got to the point where I couldn’t go outside without a torch to scan the surrounding trees. This would let any lurking owls know that I had seen them, and I would dash to my destination while trying to keep the wood owls in my wobbly spotlight.
Then one night, as suddenly as they had started, hostilities ceased. It was probably at the end of the four month dependence period, and the time had come for the young owls to move on. With the need to aggressively defend their territory no longer necessary, the owls never returned to my table, but I did occasionally get brief glimpses of them in the garden.
Whenever I hear that beautiful hooting call, it now always reminds me of the time in my life when I had a family of wood owls floating down in silence and dive bombing my head. My very own haunting and a sensation I will never forget!