Cynefin – A Sense of Place: The Wonder of a Barn Owl
…a pale face hovering in the afterdraught of the spirit, making both ends meet on a scream…
Tawny owls live and breed in these woods. I hear them in the cool freshness of an early spring morning and when dusk mantles upon the trees; hear their answering calls when I’m lying in my bed with the windows open.
The tu-wit, tu-who reminiscent of a fairy story. I’ve only seen them on a few occasions however – dark striations against a paler fluffed body, the size of a pigeon that’s eaten the next door farmer’s corn. A silent soar from hazel to ash.
There’s no evidence that barn owls breed here. The slippery, shininess of metal barns isn’t conducive to a barn owl looking for a home. Even when we put up an owl box, none seemed interested.
Only the afore-mentioned pigeons nested inside, and they seem to nest anywhere. I’ve seen barn owls though, seen them appear almost magically, floating between barn and gate; cruising the hedges; a ghost-like tremble skimming the greyline.
You’ll never hear one approaching; they arrive with no warning – hovering, swooping and gliding silently, gently, resembling an oversized moth.
They seem suspended in time and space, their wings almost too large for their small body. And they are almost weightless – a mature barn owl weighing less than a pound.
Barn owls have a macabre orchestra of other-world sounds – screeching, screaming, shushing, hissing, which is why they used to be known as the demon owl.
The call of an owl was once considered a bad omen and they were associated with death, especially as they were regularly seen around graveyards.
Following two days of snow, one roosted in the top barn. As I crunched my way up the drive early one morning, it appeared from under the lip of the roof, an almost touchable distance away from me and soared past me without a sound.
Unlike the sheep, whose white fleece seems dirty when seen against the pristineness of snow, the underside and face of this owl were bright white. And somehow, the not-of-this-world silence of the birds flight echoed the silence of the snow.
Throughout the year, I found charcoal-grey owl pellets underneath the wooden beam, evidence the barn owl must have roosted there again, even though I rarely saw one.
A barn owls talons are extremely sharp and it’s likely that their prey is killed by a claw not a beak. One talon has a comb to groom their heart shaped facial disc, which is surrounded by tiny stiff feathers of tan and gold, outlining the heart perfectly.
This disc picks up any sound and directs it toward their ears, which are placed asymmetrically and are of different shapes, so the owl is able to work out the exact location of a moving animal.
They have the most sensitive hearing of all animals and their necks can turn 270 degrees, which is necessary as their eyes can only look straight ahead.
Their feathers are adapted for quiet flight; their foremost wing feathers have row of tiny hooks that help deaden the sound of air. Their feathers are not waterproof however, which is why many die of hypothermia in a wet spring.
Having had a captive bred barn owl called Magik for many years, I recognise all of these details.
However, there are things about owls the books don’t tell you…that the down on a barn owls chest is the softest thing you can imagine, especially when the bird is nestling into your neck, and it smells wonderfully of old, of damp, of earth; that its eyes are a bottomless obsidian black that seem to look straight through you; that they move their heads from side to side when focusing, which gives them an almost comic appearance, and when threatened, snap their beaks to scare; that they have ticklish areas behind their ears, shutting their eyes, hunkering down and crooning; that they enjoy standing in the dogs water bowl, screeching every time a dog dares come near; that contrary to popular belief, they are not wise; that they like to balance on your head and chew your hair and it’s true their talons are the sharpest of sharp; and although almost weightless, they are full to the brim of owl things and belong to a liminal world.
That they are the most beautiful of creatures.
Gaynor Funnell is the winner of the Nigel Jenkins award for 2022. We are delighted to be publishing a series about Penbanc over the coming months, with support from the H’mm Foundation.
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