If there is any animal that has gotten so much impetus in the realm of superstitions the world over, it is the owl. As a matter of fact, it has attracted a lot of controversy among cultures.
Just as it has advanced the cause of research in the natural sciences, it has also impacted tremendously in showcasing the dynamism in cultures and traditions through the beliefs of people and groups hold on this solitary bird.
Yet, this creature has been a source of fear and apprehension to many who portray it in a different light; as a result humanity has not been able to enjoy and appreciate this creature from God.
Nigeria Sunrise reporter went out in an attempt to demystify the beliefs concerning this bird and the seeming profligacy that has been the feature through ages.
Simply called ‘Mujiya’ in Hausa, the Owl has carved itself a niche in the belief systems of most ethnic groups the world over. It is no different with our African society and Nigeria in particular where superstition is an integral part of our traditional belief systems.
According to the Wikipedia, there are some 220 to 225 extant species of owls, subdivided into two families; typical owls and barn owls. The Owl is said to be solitary and nocturnal and found in almost all regions of the earth .They are carnivores birds of prey and live mainly on insects and small rodents .
Owls are birds that have large forward-looking eyes and ear-holes; a hawk-like beak; a flat face; and usually a conspicuous circle of feathers, a facial disc around each eye.
The feathers making up this disc can be adjusted in order to sharply focus sounds that come from varying distances onto the owl’s asymmetrically placed ear cavities.
Most birds of prey sport eyes on the sides of their heads ,but the stereoscopic nature of the owl’s forward-looking eyes permits the greater sense of depth-perception necessary for low-light hunting.
Although owls have binocular vision, their large eyes are fixed in their sockets-as are those of other birds so they must turn their entire head to change views. Owls can rotate their heads and necks as much as 270 degrees in either direction.
As owls are far-sighted, they are unable to see clearly anything within a few centimetres of their eyes. Caught prey can be felt by owls with the use of filiplumes-small hair-like feathers on the beak and feet that acts as ‘feelers’. Their far vision, particularly in low light, is exceptionally good.
Different species of owls make different sounds. This wide range of sounds aid owls in finding mates or announcing the presence of potential competitors, and also aid birders in locating these birds and recognizing the species.
The facial disc help owls to funnel the sound of a prey to their ears. In many species, these discs are placed asymmetrically, for better directional location, says the Wikipedia.
Most owls are nocturnal, actively hunting their prey only in darkness. A few owls are active during the day. Also much of the owls’ hunting strategy depends on stealth and surprise.
Owls have at least two adaptations that aid them in achieving stealth.
First, the dull colouration of their feathers can render them almost invisible under certain conditions. Secondly, serrated edges on the leading edge of owl’s remiges muffle an owl’s wing beat, allowing an owl’s flight to be practically silent.
In a more simplified language, most owls live a mainly nocturnal lifestyle and being able to fly without making any noise gives them a strong advantage over their prey that are listening for any sign of noise in the dark night.
Owls have an audible range similar to that of humans, but are far more acute to certain frequencies which allow them to detect even the slightest movements of its prey.
Once the owl has determined the location of its prey, it flies toward it according to the last sound perceived. If the prey moves, the owl is able to adjust its flight pattern mid-flight, concludes the source.
Relationship with humans
Studies have shown that, among the Kikuyu people of Kenya, it was believed that Owls are harbingers of death. If one saw an owl or heard of its hoot, someone was going to die. In general, owls are viewed as harbingers of bad luck, ill-health, or death. The belief is widespread today.
In the culture of the Uto Aztec tribe, the Hopi of Mexico, South America, taboos surround owls, which are associated with sorcery and other evils. The Aztecs and Maya, along with other natives of Meso America, considered the owl as a symbol of death and destruction.
In fact, the Aztec god of death, Mictlantecuhtli, was often depicted with Owls. There is an old saying in Mexico that is still in use, cuando el tecolote canta, el indio muere [when the owl cries/sings, the Indian dies].
They belief that owls are messengers and harbingers of the dark powers are also found among the Hocagara (Winnebago] of Wisconsin, when in earlier days the Hocagara committed the sin of killing enemies while they were within the sanctuary of the Chief’s lodge, an owl appeared and spoke to them in the voice of a human, saying ‘from now on, the Hocagara will have no luck’.
This marked the beginning of the decline of their tribe. People often allude to the reputation of owls as bearers of supernatural danger when they tell misbehaving children ‘the owls will get you’. In Arab mythology, Owls are seen as bad omens.
However, the modern West, generally associates Owls with wisdom. This link goes back at least as far back as Ancient Greece, where Athens, noted for Art and Scholarship, and Athena, Athens’ patron goddess and the goddess of wisdom had Owl as a symbol.
Owls were also considered funerary birds among the Romans.
Today, with the influence of western culture in our society, how do Africans or Nigerians view this bird.
Nigeria Sunrise went out and sampled the opinions of a vast number of people cutting across tribe and religion.
A corp member, newly posted to Bali in Taraba State has this to say, ‘My grand parents told me that the bird that is not common like other birds and, its nature; bold eyes and round face, looks like a human being.
So what they told me is that when you hear it crying in the night, when you hear such sound in the night, there is a particular thing that would happen after some time or it may be an omen that something is going to happen in your family or even you yourself.
But in my own view after they have told me, it came to a time that I became a Christian, so I did not take these things to be a problem to me. By my own perspective of the Bible and its teachings concerning them, they have no power over me’.
Another respondent, Fidelis Nenge, an Educationist and Tiv by tribe says ‘Well, normally when things like this happen, people know it is a sign of rain that may fall on time and that if such happen at night, others see it as a sign of bad luck or financial problem.
So people interpret it at any or their own way. But from my own conclusion, it is what God has created so it can even cry in the night but it is difficult to interpret , it is only God that knows’.
In his response, Idris B. Mallam, a Mumuye by tribe, dismissed the attribution of the said bird with evil, using a logic that might sound indeed palpable, hear him ‘…our parents use to tell us that there was a belief that wherever this bird frequents, there must be someone who practices witchcraft and so that was what we learnt from our parents.
…They are entitled to their own opinion anyway, but for me there is no cause for alarm because the bird inhabits all lands and does that mean people in all those lands are witches and wizards? But, I know it is only God that has the power over life and death.
No matter one’s wizardry, you have no power over the life of another person. So that’s how I see it’.
Michael, another Corp member who is an Igbo, noted that it is all about the individual concerned as he said, ‘They are normal birds. It is just about the mindset. What you take them to be is what they would be.
To some people seeing a cat makes them nervous, but someone like me, I see cat as a normal animal. I don’t react. That’s my belief’.
Nevertheless, with the various beliefs cutting across cultures holding sway, what is the religious perspective of the so called evil bird,
Rev. Gwadabe, a Christian Cleric puts it this way. ‘It is a kind of bird that we are not able to relate with religion. God can use any animal at any time. We have got a bird that God has used to feed Prophet Elijah.
You see that one is different, being a raven, but for the owl, my research has not led me to any relationship of this bird with the Bible.
It is just a bird, a creature of God but certain superstitions about the bird have no place in Christianity because I know of certain superstitions that are evil concerning it. But in Christianity such has no place’.
‘However, there is another area where Christianity would agree concerning such; Satan can use any type of animal, that was why in the beginning, Satan used the snake to deceive Adam and Eve, and so Satan can use any kind of animal to carry out his work in which if the target is not prepared against the attack, he would succeed but if he stands firm in the religion through prayers, such attacks would be averted’.
‘However, if we are to go by personal beliefs, you see we have been indoctrinated by our cultural and traditional beliefs, even though we are Christians but certain cultural traits are still in us even if we do not agree. But you see these are things we have learnt long ago in which even now that we have taken another way, we tend to see things that way’.
‘It has been realized that this bird is hardly seen in the daytime but mostly comes out by night ,and even when it comes out at night, it does not come out just like that .Sometimes when it cries, you hear certain echoes accompanying its cries.
Just as I have told you, even though we are Christians, Satan can use an animal to achieve his aim. So that can not be denied only that if we pray we say, whichever animal that Satan might use even if it is not this one, we neutralize their power, especially those animals that cultures and traditions have labeled as mediums for witchcraft’.
Also contributing, an Islamic cleric, Imam Habibu Abubakar, said islam does not believe in the fact that the bird owl can harm a person, saying that if you practice your religion well, no witch can harm you. He also said the owl is just an ordinary bird which is created of God.
Owl as a necessary evil
In spite of the negative portrayal of this creature, it has proven to be useful in many areas and is even a subject of legislation.
According to the Wikipedia, ‘encouraging natural predators to control rodent population is a natural form of pest control, along with excluding food sources for rodents; placing a new box for owls on a property can help control rodents population [one family of hungry barn owls can consume more than 3000 rodents in a nesting season] while maintaining the naturally balanced food chain’.
And according to the same source, all owls are listed in Appendix 11 of the International CITES treaty [the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora].
Amazingly, owls are food for some as captured in the following statement of fact by the Wikipedia. ‘although owls have long been hunted, a 2008 news story from Malaysia, indicates that the magnitude of owl poaching may be on the rise. In November 2008,TRAFFIC reported the seizure of 900 plucked and oven-ready owls in Peninsular Malaysia’.
By and large, It is hoped that a comprehensive study of this bird would demystify the beliefs concerning this bird and perhaps unleash the endowments of this bird for the good of the society, instead of brooding on old superstitions which tend to take us backward. Ultimately, as the modern west believes and see it as a symbol of wisdom, I say, wisdom may be required in understanding the nature of this bird.