The elfin barn owl

Driving home after dark last week, a beautiful barn owl flew ahead of me all the way along the Hinderclay Road, and then settled, with his back to me, on a fence post right by the road as I stopped beside him for a good look. After a few moments he looked over his shoulder at me as if to say “Oh, I wondered where you’d got to”, before flying off into the night.

My favourite bird artist, R B Talbot Kelly, wrote of a similar experience in the 1950s, when a barn owl flew 30 or 40 yards in the beam of his headlights. “I always feel there is something elfin about a barn owl,” he wrote, “its very colour is that of faerie.” He describes the barn owl’s flight as “of the same airy, floating nature as the harriers. In the half-light the bird resembles nothing so much as a large tuft of thistledown blown by some small, gusty wind.” Similarly, George Macbeth, in his poem Owl, describes him as “a feather duster in leafy corners ring-a-rosy-ing boles of mice.” Like all owls, its flight is silent, and Talbot Kelly describes how, one evening, the barn owl “passed within inches of my cheek with a silence and gentleness of a great snowflake. Seen thus, it is a most lovable bird with its eyes glowing darkly in a gnome-like face.”

In Norfolk the barn owl is known by many names including Billy wix, Madge howlet and Gilly howter, although my source, Provincial Names and Folk Lore of British Birds, published in 1885, doesn’t explain their derivation. In many countries its appearance foretells misfortune or even death, and this is reflected in the title of Margaret Craven’s novel, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, which tells of the Kwakwaka’wakw belief that an owl that calls your name is calling for your soul to rejoin the spirits in the other world. These associations no doubt derive from the bird’s nocturnal habits, its white plumage and its call, which that more down-to-earth authority, Witherby’s Handbook of British Birds, describes as “an eerie, long-drawn shriek, often in flight.” But the owl is also associated with wisdom and was sacred to Athene, the goddess of wisdom, who sees even in darkness.

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