I think all of us have a favorite animal when we are children. Mine was the owl.
If you’re wondering why, I’ll have to disappoint you. I don’t know. When I was about ten, I had a long list of favorite animals. I liked otters and beavers and wolves and hawks and penguins and badgers and cheetahs. I could tell you about habitat of the ocelot, the hunting patterns of the orca, the migration patterns of the white stork, the language of whales, how to tell the difference between the tracks of the roe deer and the red deer, how to tell birds of prey by their outline in the sky, and how bats fly and hunt at night even though they’re blind.
In fact, when I was ten and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them, “A zoologist.”
They’d say, “A what?”
I’d roll my eyes behind my too-large glasses like ten-year olds do and brush my hand through my hair sticking up all ways like ten-year olds’ hair does and say, “A zoologist is someone who studies animals.”
And they’d say, “So you want to be a zookeeper?”
And I’d say, “No. A zoologist isn’t a zookeeper. Don’t you know anything?”
And then I’d leave them standing there in their red-faced shame. Or at least what I imagined was their red-faced shame.
(I grew out of this behavior. I swear. That’s why I’m now my own charming self and not like this guy or this guy. Or only on my worse days. Also, I didn’t know anything either. I thought zoologists were the guys who went on expeditions to make the animal documentaries I watched all the time. I loved Heinz Sielmann‘s way of letting nature speak for itself in all its violent, glorious beauty. Turns out, most zoologist observe a single pond all their lives counting mosquito larvae, sit in labs and watch caged animals do erratic things, send lots of begging letters for funding their travels and cages, or else conference-hop. I decided maybe zoology wasn’t for me when, in eighth grade biology class, our teacher decided that for the unit on animal behavior we should focus on why toads wipe their mouth after eating worms and on calculating the geometric patterns of bees’ dance. I find that fascinating now — I raptly learn about parasitic wasps that hijack cockroaches and ride them around for a while before laying their eggs inside them, avidly read about the effect of the anatomy of the zebra finch and chingolo sparrow on the structure of their birdsong, and write to my political representatives in defense of the preservation of wolves in the Mountain West — but at the time, learning from bad textbook drawings why a dog could be made to salivate if a bell rang didn’t quite measure up to watching orcas create artificial waves to wash a seal off an ice float and directly into their mouths or a hawk’s eye view as it soars through forest trees. So, for a fourteen year-old boy, that was that.)
Anyway, back to owls.
As you can imagine, I went to the zoo a lot. I grew up in Berlin, and the Berlin Zoo has the most comprehensive collection of species in the world, and the Berlin Aquarium, which isn’t too shabby, is right next door for rainy days. I probably wore out my parents and grandmother, having them take me there as often as I did.
I guess what happened to make the owl win out over all the others was that I was at the zoo one day, and the otter habitat was crowded because people like to watch otters slide with obvious glee down waterfalls on their backs, and the beavers were hiding in their stick-tumble lodge, and the wolves were sleeping in a heap in the corner of their enclosure, and the clipped-wing hawks were pouting, and the badgers were underground in their burrow, and the cheetahs were staying inside the raubtierhaus walking incessantly back and forth along an eight foot stretch behind bars instead of going for sprints of up to 120 km/h, which is, after all, mostly what’s fun about them.
So, since everyone else was either sleeping or pacing neurotically or, in the case of the elephants, flinging dirt, or, in the case of the monkeys, flinging excrement, I wandered over to where they keep the owls. To appreciate an owl in a zoo, you have to be fairly patient. They tend to sit in small aviaries with dead mice or chicks on the floor if they’ve recently been fed, and at first sitting there is all they do. You have to give them some time. I was willing to give them some time because behind our house in Berlin there’s a row of ancient trees, and an owl lived in them that I could hear hooting when the window to my room was open at night, and I wanted to see which kind it might be. I wanted it to be a snowy owl or an Eurasian eagle-owl (which in German is called, fittingly, an uhu), so those were the ones I looked at. I was hoping they’d make their ooh-hoo sound so I could tell whether one of their cousins was my neighbor. Finally, one of them opened his one gigantic yellow eye, and then the other, and he blinked at me.
“Hi,” I said, to break the ice.
The owl said nothing. Instead, without moving its body, it turned its head 180 degrees to look at the wall. Which, as disgruntled rejection goes, is a pretty darn effective way to tell someone you don’t want to be bothered. Being the disgruntled type myself at times, I appreciated the honesty.
And I guess that’s when someone saw me standing there, smirking in front of the owl cage, and the someone decided I’d like things with owls on them as small gifts.
“What?” you might say. “Owls?”
To which I’d answer that other kids are made to pretend they really love collecting spoons from tourist trap trinketshops, or postage stamps, or Star Wars figurines, or worse, they’re taught they’re not unique enough to like anything at all except what can be bought on sale at anonymous toy stores so they can be exactly like all their friends, who are trying to be exactly like all their other friends, who are trying to be exactly like them. What I got was the symbol of wisdom and of silent death (which owls are because their flight feathers have saw-shaped edges that muffle all sound from flapping their wings and because their hoot scares people with vivid imaginations). Not a bad choice. Especially if combined with my family’s crest, which is a fox, symbol of cunning and mystery. (In fact, my last name was also that of the fox in medieval fables, which were so popular that the French now call the fox renard and no longer by its old French name, goupil). Not that I claim any of those attributes, but it’s nice to pretend.
So by the time I was twelve, the owl was my favorite animal.
As a result, for much of my childhood and teens, and sometimes even now, I’ve been ending up with owlish things. (Technically, my dictionary tells me, that should be “strigine things,” derived from the Latin word for owl, strix. But “strigine” is a hideous word. It reminds me of strychnine. For a moment there I thought, well, if we have to be all Greco-Roman, perhaps something derived from the Greek tyto or otus, which both mean owl. But “tytose” or “otine” don’t really sound much better to me, so owlish it is. Or maybe owlous. Owline. Owlesque. Owliform.) Mostly it’s art. I have owlish art of all genres, media, and provenances. I even have owlish stationery, and if you receive a hand-written letter from me, which only a very select number of people do, it will have an owl seal or stamp on the flap.
That can be not-so-good, such as when people who are much more bland think it’s odd for someone to have a favorite animal. But then, I don’t care what milquetoasts think. And an owl is much more interesting than the pocket schnoodles and purse chihuahuas such types usually prefer.
And yes, it can be very bad, such as when I lived in rural Africa and wore a ring with an owl on it until the day a real-life owl got caught in a nearby classroom building and the locals came running to ask me to come and kill it, and I told them no, owls eat rodents and snakes, let’s just set it free, and they told me they knew I was the only one who could kill it because I wasn’t afraid of owls, and I asked why I was supposed to be afraid of owls, and they said that owls were harbingers of death, and when you heard one hoot, it meant someone would die, and at night they’d sit on roads to fly up in your face and kill you because they were curses sent by ill-wishers, and I said, no, they sit on the roads because the sand is warm from the day’s sun, and insects go to the warmth, and rodents go to eat the insects, and snakes go to eat the rodents, and owls go to eat the rodents and the snakes, and they only fly up in your face because they don’t like being stepped on, but they didn’t buy it, and they tapped on my ring and said, see, I was not afraid of owls even though they are death, and could I go and kill it. I set it free. Somehow, that story ended up being retold with a different ending — that I took the owl home with me — and that, I was later told, was why nobody ever broke into my place out there in the bush, even though everyone else’s places frequently got broken in to. And yes, that’s bad, not good, because I’d rather people not be superstitious. I haven’t worn the ring much since, and not at all in years.
But it can also be a nice thing, such as when someone sent me this link for a free owlish calendar for 2011. All the artwork in this blog post is from that calendar. You can pick yourself which owl you want for which month, and it’ll send it to you as a pdf, and you can print it out on whatever artsy expensive paper you want. That made me happy because I move around the country a lot these days, and my owlish things along with my childhood and all the things I used to know and no longer do are nearly all packed in boxes in attics and basements, some a few thousand miles away, and now I can have at least one thing that reminds me of being a ten-year old boy who stood in front of an owl’s aviary in the zoo hoping the owl would turn its heard around again and hoot and blink its eyes sleepily, even though it never did.
So have a free calendar. It’s that time of year. Besides, they’re beautiful things, owls. And the art’s nice, too.
(In case you were wondering:
a) The owl in our backyard turned out to be a Little Owl, which I found out from reading its pellets, matching its hoot, and then spotting it — and if you don’t know what any of those things mean, that’s probably okay.
b) No, I didn’t develop this interest after reading the Harry Potter books and really liking Hedwig, Errol, and Pigwidgeon. I didn’t read those books until I was in college. It would, in any case, be a bad idea to have an owl as a pet. They are strong, sharp-taloned birds with a temper that have to be fed small animals whole, don’t like company, smell bad, and make enormous messes. The only place they should be kept, if at all, is in falconries. I don’t own one of those. Yet.
c) A group of owls is called a “parliament of owls.” Also a “hooting of owls” or a “looming of owls.” If it’s snowy owls, they can also be a “blizzard of owls.” When you should ever use this knowledge, I don’t know.
d) This preference for owls also made me curious to visit The Owl Shop in New Haven when I lived there. Turns out, the Owl Shop is the best place in New Haven for reasons entirely unrelated to owls and thoroughly related to being the best whiskey & cigar lounge I’ve been to.
e) No, owls don’t actually cross my mind more than once a month, so about as often as baseball does. But they’re fun to write about. And if you and I are on a stroll in the woods sometime, or out hunting, or in the zoo, and we see one, I’ll be happy to tell you all their little secrets I left out of this post.)