Suburban Wild: The haunted forest

Suburban Wild: The haunted forest

Barbara Julien is a local writer and nature enthusiast

Its fleeting ghostlike passage through the night air is all we usually see of the Great Horned Owl, Greater Victoria’s most plentiful owl species. If we look hard we might also spot it roosting in cavities in the trunks of trees. The only one I’ve seen up close was a motionless pile of pale softness sitting on the edge of the driveway one night. I thought it was a cat until it suddenly lifted itself in flight. This owl I sensed was not doing well as it wafted across the street, but when I crossed to get another glimpse it had gone, phantom-like.

In earlier eras anyone would have taken its presence as an omen, but what the omen meant would have differed from one culture to another. Kwakiutl people thought an owl housed the soul of a dead person, while the ancient Greeks viewed it as a protector, especially of soldiers. In Anglo-Saxon lore it was the symbol of doom, while to farmers its presence meant a storm was coming. In many ancient cultures the owl symbolized the Great Mother.

Locally she is seen infrequently enough to be special, and no doubt her predatory lifestyle, her ability to see and hear way beyond our own range, to swoop down with murderous precision on a field mouse hundreds of feet below her perch, adds to the frisson of vicarious fear she excites in us. The owl’s extraordinary vision and hearing are enabled by eyes which are huge in relation to total body mass and situated in bony “tunnels” in the head, and ears into which sound is directed by surrounding flaps of skin and feathers. The large eyes and wide head give the owl its “wise” look, and its exceptionally soft feathers permit silent flight. The owl’s vision is also enhanced by its ability to turn its head as much as 270 degrees. That spooky habit gave rise to another myth: that if you keep walking around a tree with an owl in it, it will watch you until it wrings its own neck.

Other than the Great Horned the most common local owl is the Western Screech-owl. Both are usually seen in winter or spring. The Great Horned lays two eggs in an abandoned crow’s or eagle’s nest in February while the Western Screech waits until April and nests in holes in large trees, which parental pairs will protect aggressively. More rarely we might also see a Barred or Short-eared owl.

Its unearthly screech is the other thing that links the owl to spookiness, and to Hallowe’en iconography. That evening before All-Hallows (All Saints) Day is the time the demons are said to range free, and the owl is the very embodiment of the swooping unpredictability of the demonic. “Hallowed” means whatever is made holy, as were the saints of All Saints Day, but in the pre-Christian Goddess religion holy meant something else — wholism — which included both life and death. By the Church the Owl-Goddess was confined to that night before the light of holy day broke, to that darkness that a winged huntress makes her own.

Thus intriguingly are biology and mythology mixed in owl-study. In the forest which is her natural home the owl like all species has an ecological job to do: she helps keep populations of mice, squirrels, birds, reptiles and insects in balance. Even in well-treed bits of suburbia she does this. We can sometimes hear her haunting hoots and screeches across the night air, the voice of the lost forest that once flourished here, teeming with life eons before humans arrived.

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