It sits on Minerva’s forearm, a symbol of the Roman Goddess of Wisdom and Strategic Warfare (represented as Athena in Greek Mythology), yet in our reckoning, it is a bird representing ruin, desolation and in some instances buffoonery. This mindset has perhaps been created by the creature’s preference for solitude and why not, for wisdom does require undisturbed contemplation. The fact is that this member of the feathered family is indeed the wisest of the lot, possessing extraordinary intelligence and skills.

READ MORE: Going not-so green

Owls are part of an order that includes around 200 species of mostly solitary and nocturnal birds of prey, stereotyped by an upright stance, a large, broad head (hence its intelligence), binocular vision, binaural hearing, sharp talons, and feathers adapted for silent flight. These extraordinary creatures are gifted with large, forward-facing eyes and ear-holes, a hawk-like beak, a flat face made conspicuous by circle of feathers or facial disc, around each eye. The feathers making up this disc can be adjusted to sharply focus sounds from varying distances into asymmetrically placed ear cavities. The stereoscopic nature of forward-facing eyes allow greater depth perception, necessary for low-light hunting. Although owls have binocular vision, like most birds, their eyes are fixed in sockets forcing them to turn their entire head to see their surroundings, rotating their heads and necks as much as 270 degrees. Their vertebral configuration and unique circulatory system enables this to happen without cutting off blood supply to their brains. Being farsighted, they cannot clearly see anything within a few centimeters of their eyes – a disadvantage amply compensated by tiny ‘sensor’ hairs around the beak. Their distant vision however, particularly in low light, is exceptionally good. The Owl family varies in size from the Elf Owl which weighs 31 grams and is 5 inches in length to female Eagle Owls that weigh 4.2 kg, grow up to 28 inches and have a wing span of 21 inches.

The amazing bird featured in this piece has great influence on our daily life style and vocabulary. The phrase, ‘Ulloo or Ulloo ka Paththa’ is a means of angry catharsis of the mild kind, while ‘Ulloo ki Dum’ represents a fond expletive. A colorful Paper Mache figure bedecked with glitter and sold by balloon sellers is generally referred to as ‘Ulloo Bata’.

The owl’s true worth is however acknowledged by military schools of Strategy like the Staff College in Camberley, UK where it is shown perched on two crossed swords. One of our own distinguished Army Schools of higher learning at Quetta had adopted similar symbol, until it was changed somewhere in the late 1970s by a military dictator known for destroying tradition. This member of the feathered family is also associated with wizardry, a notion proliferated globally through the Harry Potter books and films, where it acts as ‘letter carriers’. Owls are also nature’s way of maintaining balance, in that they hunt and eat rodents, lizards and even creepy crawlies with some collateral damage, such as young poultry chicks. The most interesting fact about this bird is that it makes an excellent and most interesting pet. I have seen a demonstration of this in a friend’s home, where his ‘favorite addition’ sits, not incarcerated in a cage, but on a perch, free to fly around the house reducing the gecko population and returning faithfully to his appointed spot.

My own connection with the ‘Bird’ began with the ‘Kuchkachuwa’, a local name given to what is perhaps a branch of elf owls found in our region. I discovered a family living under the eaves of our old house in Lahore, occasionally peeping out for a ‘look see’ as dusk approached. The parents in the family would then fly out returning with food for the owlets in the nest. We resorted to putting scraps of meat on a nearby bench and were gratified to find them taken. Such was the charisma generated by these small creatures that we often sat on the bench waiting for the show to begin – a show that began with a crescendo of calls, much resembling the name “Kuchkachuwa, kuchkachuwa, kuchkachuwa!”

 

The writer is a historian.