The identity politics of the owl

The identity politics of the owl

An owl is seen at the Familia Geisse vineyard in Pinto Bandeira, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil. (AFP Photo)

The gardener and I were walking around in the yard, surveying when I looked up to see a barn owl fly over our heads. I gasped, “is that an owl? That is so inauspicious...” “In India, it may be inauspicious, but my native American culture says nothing of that sort. We even have them on our totem poles. Don’t worry. Owls are okay creatures,” the gardener explained casually. “If you say so,” I agreed. I have never had reason to think of the owl as a harbinger of bad luck.

The owl is no ordinary bird. It has a special presence in mythology and folklore in most cultures. Goddess Athena’s favourite bird was the owl. Narada was asked to learn music from the owls! Duryodhana sent his rejection of the peace proposal from the Pandavas with a messenger named, Uluka meaning an owl.

The owl has been associated with both the good and evil, wisdom and dumbness, giving it an identity that contradicts itself. When I was at the Senior Center recently, my attention was caught by a notice that announced birdwatching sessions. There was a trip scheduled to a salt marsh by the ocean to observe a white owl, and I signed up.

The van was filled with excited viewers on that crisp, sunny morning as we headed for the salt marsh.

We reached the impressive building that housed the Coastal Salt Marsh Restoration, which is a part of the National Wild Life Refuge. Once inside the building, we soaked in information about the wildlife in our state. There were pictures, videos and literature about the treasures of a salt marsh and its inhabitants. “Time to go see the white owl,” announced our guide, the Forest Ranger.

We walked down the winding path, admiring the ocean and the surrounding pristine silence to reach the huge oak tree where the white owl had made its home. As we drew closer, we could see on the very top of the tree, a white owl sitting still as if in meditation. The owl watched us in return, silent, exhibiting its proverbial wisdom.

One of them said the huddled wings were deceptive, for it had a wing-span of six feet. Our guide then explained how this particular owl had been coming from Canada for the past five years, and going back when summer advanced. Back in Quebec, the owl has injured mid-air and was in the hospital for a month. “That is when it got used to people, and hence does not mind us watching,” he concluded.

From the top of the tree, he watches like the king of all, I added to myself wordlessly.

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