From Halloween decorations to horror movies to associations with witchcraft or shamanism, there are many superstitions about owls throughout the world. Superstitions might seem like simple fables or fairy tales, but they’re much more. In many cultures, superstitions are so prevalent and widespread that they are viewed as truth and passed from generation to generation. Superstitions are often negative, and as people come to believe owls are evil or unlucky, they may try to harm the birds to avoid the bad consequences they believe owls bring.
Even positive superstitions can be dangerous, since many positive beliefs may revolve around using bird parts – eggs, eyes, feathers, talons, etc. – as amulets or ingredients in potions or brews. Nests could be raided or owls may be killed to provide those ingredients.
Most Common Owl Superstitions
The exact details of superstitions depend on local religious beliefs and which owls may be part of the legend, but some of the more common, widespread owl superstitions include…
- Owls as a Symbol of Death
Their silent nature and predatory behavior often associates owls with death and dying. Dreaming of an owl or hearing an owl’s hoot may foreshadow a death. An owl perched on a roof is often believed to foretell the death of someone living there, and owls are believed to be able to see ghosts, so any house or barn where an owl lives in is likely to be haunted. In the Native American Hopi culture, burrowing owls are believed to be the god of the dead and protectors of the underworld.
- Owls as Evil Spirits
Even if owls aren’t directly associated with death, they are often considered evil omens. Many cultures consider owls to be unclean and undesirable, and these birds are frequently associated with witch doctors or shamans. Owls may be seen as spies, and nailing an owl to a door is believed to protect the home or barn from lightning or guard against the bird’s evil spirit. Different cultures believe owls can carry off children, and seeing an owl circling during the day is considered an omen of bad news or bad luck.
- Owl Parts as Talismans or Enhancements
Many superstitions involve using parts of an owl for specific purposes. Eating an owl’s eyes is often thought to enhance eyesight or allow a person to see in the dark, and owl broth or meat is believed to cure seizures, alleviate rheumatism, increase wisdom, or even serve as a potent aphrodisiac. In some cases, just possessing owl feathers or talons is believed to have the same effects.
- Owls as Feminine Spirits
Many cultures connect owls with women, even believing owls to be the incarnation of women’s spirits or believing women can turn into owls. The little owl (Athene noctua) was believed to be the companion of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. If the association with women is a positive one, the birds could be seen as sacred, but in many cultures, the owl is believed to be a manifestation of a vindictive woman or a woman’s rage.
- Positive Owl Beliefs
Not all owl superstitions are negative. Some cultures believe owls can be protective spirits and embody ferocity and bravery. Owls may offer guidance or be symbolic of great wisdom and intuition. These birds may warn of danger that can be overcome, or may foretell wealth or positive change. In some cultures, owls are even seen as messengers of the gods or liaisons to the spiritual world.
Even though some superstitions may be positive and give owls a revered standing, most owl superstitions are more likely to be harmful. Debunking superstitions is a good step toward reducing the impact long-standing legends and irrational beliefs may have, and there are several ways birders can help owls be better understood.
- Learn true owl facts and trivia, and spread the word about how amazing these birds really are without the need for exaggerated legends or fables.
- Plan educational programs about owls at local schools or birding festivals, including rehabilitated owl ambassadors to introduce children to real owls.
- Share owling opportunities and give more people the opportunity to see owls in their native, natural habitat so everyone can learn how beautiful and beneficial owls can be.
- Support programs from nature centers, raptor interest groups, and owl rescues to spread community awareness about owls and to help with owl conservation.
By debunking owl superstitions, these outstanding raptors can be enjoyed rather than endangered, and everyone who loves owls – birders and non-birders alike – will be able to protect and preserve these birds for generations.