Monday owl

One of the readers pointed out, astutely, that owls are the cats of the bird world.  And this juvenile, whose species is unknown to me, surely looks catlike: check out its eyes. (One commenter even said “It’s like a cat with a beak and bird feet.”)

Since we’re all proving to be owl fans, I’ll post one a day for a week, starting with a cute one. But we’ll have some owl biology too.

There are 217 species of owls, all in the bird order Strigiformes. They live on all continents save Antarctica.

Two fun facts about owls:

  1. A group of owls is called a parliament (analogous to a “murder of crows”)
  2. This is my own observation, made after innumerable French people laughed at me when I tried to say the most difficult French word to pronounce: serrurier (“locksmith”). In revenge, I always asked the French to pronounce “owl”.  They simply can’t do it.  They contort their faces and mouths into untenable positions and finally manage to come out with something like “awww-wellllll”.  It’s hilarious. I was told that the French have three general terms for owls, classifying them by size, with the chouette being the smallest, hibou the medium-sized, and the grand duc the largest. “Chouette” is also a term for “cool”, as in “ça c’est chouette”, which, when I lived in France, I automatically translated as “that’s owly!”

So identify the species. . .

79 Comments

  1. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    “A group of owls is called a parliament”

    Is this really a fact though? Do real people actually call it that in ordinary conversation? Or is this just one of those clever-sounding terms that appear in lists of collective nouns but that nobody actually uses?

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      Pretty much the latter, iirc.

      /@

      • Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        A little Googling turned up this: The term “parliament,” for example, has been used since 1400 to describe a congregation of things: fowls, birds, fools, bees, women, masts (on a ship), and rooks, according to the OED. But not until Lipton’s book [An Exaltation of Larks (1968)] does it appear in association with owls.

        Another source suggests that it might be a pun on, or misremembering of, Chaucer’s “parliament of fowels”.

        /@

        • Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

          *fowles (darn’ iOS auto-correct)

    • Alektorophile
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      I for one occasionally do use “rasp” of guineafowl, “rafter” of turkeys, and “gaggle” of geese, when talking about my birds in English. One reason is that English just has the best vocabulary of any language I know, one reason I love it (I am non-native speaker, only learned it in my late teens). The other is it just sounds so much better than referring to my “bunch of geese”, etc.

      • Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        “Gaggle” certainly has a long pedigree! ;-)

        /@

        • Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

          …and let’s not forget that it’s a giggle of girls….

          b&

          • Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

            & a babble of boys?

            /@

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          Agreed; “gaggle” is a legitimate word in wide usage (and not just for geese). So I’d have no problem with the (factual) statement that “a group of geese is often called a gaggle”.

          But “a parliament of owls”? I don’t think so. That’s prescription, not description.

        • Geoff
          Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          But remember it’s only a ‘gaggle’ of geese when they’re on the ground.

          When they’re in the air, in formation, it’s a ‘skein of geese.

      • RFW
        Posted April 17, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

        In view of your love of English in part because of its huge vocabulary, I hope you have a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus at your bedside. Be sure you acquire the real thing: first edition, 1852; second edition, 1879; third edition, 1936; fourth edition, 1962.

        Perhaps the third edition edited by the original author’s descendant most closely hews to the original concept, for this is a very cunningly organized book, no mere list of synonyms and antonyms.

        • Alektorophile
          Posted April 17, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for the suggestion. Right up my alley.

          Not for nothing did I receive the compact OED as a present from my wife last year.

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      In Middle English they used it. Recall Chaucer’s famous poem, “The Parlement of Foules”.

      • Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        Ah… but “foules” isn’t “owls”! See my comment above.

        /@

        • Dermot C
          Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

          Link to collective nouns for birds:

          “http://homepages.shu.ac.uk/~acsdry/quizes/birds.htm”

          Best ones:
          A murder of crows
          A charm of finches
          A deceit of lapwings
          An ostentation of peacocks
          An unkindness of ravens
          A murmuration of starlings
          A pitying of turtledoves

          • Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

            Many of which are also simply affectations…

            /@

    • gravelinspector
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      As an owl-o-phile, I’ve grown up knowing that multiple owls are a “parliament”, in the same way that multiple politicians constitute a bribery.
      Of the two non-human species, the “Prometheus” test (for politician honesty) is recommended.
      But then again, my in-family nickname is “Wol” and I have several dozen owl-fetishes in the room with me.

    • Marella
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

      How often would there be enough owls in one place to form a ‘parliament’ anyway? They aren’t that sociable, normally you only see one or two owls at a time.

  2. Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    §

    b&

  3. Bob Scott Placier
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    I’m a bird bander, and work on a Northern Saw-whet Owl banding project each fall. For years I was told, and told visitors, that the name “Saw-whet” for these little owls (avg. weight <100 grams) came from the territorial vocalization. Supposedly it sounds like the whetting of a saw. Since, before I became an ornithologist, I spent some years working in sawmills, I never thought there was much of a resemblance. But also never questioned it.

    Finally one night a French speaking visitor to our operation used the word "chouette" and explained the corruption of the word into our English name. By whatever name, they are awesome birds!

    • Dominic
      Posted April 17, 2012 at 1:44 am | Permalink

      French Wikipédia says –
      Le terme « chouette » dériverait de l’ancien français choue, supposé être issu du vieux bas francique *kawa, et partagerait la même étymologie que le terme choucas, un corvidé. La même racine semble se retrouver d’ailleurs dans de nombreuses langues nord-européennes comme dans kaie en norvégien.

  4. Cody Porter
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    My tentative identification is Western Screech Owl, based on the (apparently) dark bill.

    • Dominic
      Posted April 17, 2012 at 2:07 am | Permalink

      Latin binomial or it doesn’t count!

  5. Alektorophile
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Otus sp.? Not sure which one, not my corner of the world and not my field I am afraid.

  6. moleatthecounter
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Two owls were playing pool.

    One leans over the table to take a shot and accidently touches one of the pool balls with its wing.

    The referee steps in ‘Thats a foul … two hits!’.

    The other owl replies ‘ Two hits … to who ?’

    *gets coat*

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      How true is THIS ?:-

      “[the tawny owl] is the owl associated with the “to-wit to-woo” call. The call is thought to be made by a pair of owls that jointly hold a territory, defending that territory. The female of the pair is responsible for the “to-wit”, and the male, often some distance away, at the opposite end of the territory replies with “oo-ooo”, the timing being so accurate as to seem like one call. In captivity though, single owls have been heard making both of the sounds”

      So you would have to be close to a pair of owls in the wild to be sure they split the call in this way & then you’d have to determine their sexes.

      • Dominic
        Posted April 17, 2012 at 1:54 am | Permalink

        A few weeks ago I heard a pait of tawny owls – Strix aluco – in a wood on the north Norfolk coast, at about 7am. I could not actually see them at the time.
        Here is an interesting article about the two colour forms of the tawny owl in Europe – the grey form is ‘fitter’, less likely to suffer from disease or parasites, but they are not preferred as mates –

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1564093/?tool=pmcentrez

    • gravelinspector
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      *gets coat*
      And with good reason!

      • moleatthecounter
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

        It’s the only owl gag I know to be fair!

        *heads towards exit*

        • Jonathan Wallace
          Posted April 17, 2012 at 1:51 am | Permalink

          My daughters enjoyed it!

        • Posted April 17, 2012 at 4:15 am | Permalink

          Knock Knock!
          Who’s there?
          Woo
          Woo who?
          I’m an owl.

          (ok, I just made that up)

          *grabs coat hastily*

        • gravelinspector
          Posted April 21, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

          Until the one posted below, it was the only owl gag I knew too. But don’t take your coat off!
          For reasons that would take rather too long to explain, the beak-count as I look around the living room is 19 Owls, 3 (Israeli-ish) Guinea Fowl, a Puffin, a Penguin and a rather smashed-up Nautilus as a lone representative of the Mollusca. (the avians are various toys and models ; the Nautilus I picked up on the beach at work last year).
          Oh, sorry! I knew I was missing a beak : the wooden turtle!

        • gravelinspector
          Posted April 21, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

          In any case, why would you need an owl gag. If you need to stop an owl hooting, surely an elastic band would be more more effective?

  7. 3cat
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Hibou, Anemone and Bear make s more sense to me now. Barely.

  8. eric
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    In revenge, I always asked the French to pronounce “owl”. They simply can’t do it.

    I cry foul! Surely they can say the vowels in trowel. Or do they just throw in the towel?

    • Hempenstein
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      If they pass that test, have them take a whirl at fuchsia. At least for French Canadian I once heard, it came out fook’see’ah.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        “Fooksia” or “fyooksia” is arguably the correct pronunciation of Fuchsia, which is named for someone called Fuchs.

        Similarly, I’ve heard Forsythia pronounced “for-SYTHE-ia” (with a long “y”) by hardcore plant enthusiasts.

        • Marella
          Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

          I thought that’s how everyone pronounced it! Forsythia I mean.

          • Filippo
            Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

            I note that Professor Dawkins says “a-MY-no” acid, versus the Amuricun “a-MEE-no.”

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted April 16, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

            In the States it’s usually pronounced for-SITH-ia (short “i”).

        • Jonathan Wallace
          Posted April 17, 2012 at 1:53 am | Permalink

          I think Few-shee-ah became the accepted pronuciation for prudish reasons.

          • Dominic
            Posted April 17, 2012 at 1:56 am | Permalink

            Ah!

          • Posted April 17, 2012 at 2:07 am | Permalink

            Ya’ think?

            /@

  9. Golkarian
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    You lived in France, origin of “Fruit fly research in Paris France”?

  10. Neil
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Despite being nocturnal, owls appear to have round pupils rather than the elliptical slit pupils of the cat. Is the cat unusual in this regard, or the owl? Both, however, have nictitating membranes protecting their cornea.

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      I surmise that the cats’ veritical slit enables it to maximize light-gathering while retaining acuity for prey moving horizontally – as mice generally do.

      It figures that owls’ prey – flying insects – also moves vertically, so that would not be an advantage to them. Would an Intelligent Design have been a “+”-shaped pupil? (Only if insects didn’t also fly diagonally….)

      • Cody Porter
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        Some owls will take flying insects on the wing (notably, Western Screech-Owls, which this bird might be), but the majority prefer rodents, crustaceans, etc. on the ground as I understand it.

      • Dominic
        Posted April 17, 2012 at 1:59 am | Permalink

        Which owl species eats insects?
        [searches]
        Ah – The Pallid Scops Owl, Otus brucei.
        Never knew that!

  11. Jiuuizi
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    For what it’s worth, owl in Mandarin Chinese is maotouying, essentially meaning cat-headed hawk

  12. Matt G
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    The owl seems to be saying “Thanks for petting me, but I’d rather just bite your finger off.” Another cute killer.

  13. Michel
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    As a Frenchman, may I add my 2 cents?

    You’re right to say that “Chouette” can also mean in French “Cool”, but there is another double-meaning word in French: “Vache” that means “Cow” and may also figuratively mean “Bastard, bitch”. So if you ever hear from a bull: “Ma femme est vache, la tienne est chouette”, you can translate it word by word by “My wife is a cow, yours is a owl”, which means nothing in English. A better translation would be: “My wife is a bitch, yours is cool”. That is, of course, if bulls could speak :)

    • gravelinspector
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      “Je parle Francais comme une vache Espagnol”
      – As I was taught by a Provencale quine.
      – To the amusement of Francophone Africans of my acquaintance. Before the typhoid fever took hold.

  14. Matthew Cobb
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Never mind ‘owl’ Jerry, the English word that no French person can pronounce, no matter how good their English, is “locksmith’s”, which is of course the translation of “serrurerie” which even after 18 years living in Paris, I still couldn’t manage properly (though I could do the simpler “serrurier” – no longer I fear, my accent has gone to pot). Does this bizarre double-difficulty work in other languages?

    • MadScientist
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Oh yes – in fact it’s a problem with most words in English and their Chinese counterparts.

      • Dermot C
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        How to get a French-speaker to pronounce ‘owl’ correctly?

        1) Say, ‘a’ as in ‘chat’
        2) Say the word ‘où’
        3) Say ‘l’ as in the start of ‘le’
        4) Put them together slowly: a + où + l
        5) Say them quicker and quicker: ‘owl’

        Any TEFL teachers with a better idea?

    • Filippo
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      June – in French, “Juin” (“Juwhanh,” I think)

      July – “Juillet” [sp.?] (“Juwhee-eh”), what with that double L, a clue that it is related to Spanish, I gather.

      (The Spanish word “llorar” – “to cry”? I’m given to understand that the double L is a “yuh” sound, is that right? Though I’ve heard this word on a recording of a song pronounced “Jor-rar.” (“Dicen que Los Hombres, No Deben Llorar.”)

      • Posted April 17, 2012 at 4:22 am | Permalink

        Yes, you are correct, in french the double L is a “yuh” sound, as in vieille (old, f) veille (eve)…etc. But only when preceded by a “i”.

      • Alektorophile
        Posted April 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        As for the Spanish “ll”, there are regional differences. The “jorar” may be South American: I have even heard some Argentinians pronounce it almost like an English “sh” (as in “shave” or “should”).

  15. Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    The native NZ owl Ninox novaeseelandiae, is known as “ruru” in Maori and “morepork” in English. I often hear them but have never seen one.

    • RFW
      Posted April 17, 2012 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      Shades of Terry Pratchett and the city of Ankh-Morpork!

  16. Matthew Cobb
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    And of course as well as ‘chouette’ there is its superlative, ‘vachement chouette’, or ‘cowly owl’.

  17. Filippo
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    I would be just as if not more cautious stroking an owl as I would a cat.

    In Appalachia, there large home-made biscuits are called “cat head” biscuits.

    Dr. Coyne, I have to assume that you surely love biscuits and gravy.

  18. Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Ooh my gatos… That is PREScious. Gray morph eastern screech owl.

  19. Roz
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    I have never thought of owls as the cats of the bird-world, but I can see it. A Parliament of Owls..I love that. Everything I learn about owls endears me to them even more.
    Here’s a breif clip of our native owl – the Morepork or Ruru..we love to hear his haunting call at dusk

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      I read your native NZ owl loves a weta for lunch

      • Roz
        Posted April 17, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        Yes! Most of their diet consists of weta and other creepy crawlies, thankfully, and not too many mice as they sometimes contain brodifocaum which we currently use to eradicate rodents

  20. Filippo
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    In the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, the locals say “scrooch” owl.

  21. jipihorn
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    In fact, in French there are only two words for owls : “chouette” and “hibou”. “Grand duc” is one specie of “hibou”, the largest European owl.
    The difference between “hibou” and “chouette” is the presence of the two feathers at the top of the head for the “hibou”, what we call “aigrette” (I don’t know what is the English word for that).

    J.

  22. Tommy the cat
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    As a french, even after my three years of postdoc in Canada, I can testify that “owl” is something particularly difficult for us to pronounce properly. But the most hilarious I’ve ever heard is my mother trying to say “Southampton”. You’d better get your umbrella ready in that case (spilling all over the place). As a matter of fact, the “th” sound is something of a difficulty for us too. But, even though I never thought of it, I can only imagine how a native english speaker would sound when trying to say “serrurier”.

    The owl is definitely a Otus sp. I would go for a Western Screech Owl, but it’s difficult to say, because its a juvenile bird.

  23. Nyanko Sensei
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    They are like cats,in a way. They even like their heads scratched… awwww
    Scritch Scratch Strich

  24. Posted April 17, 2012 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    I thought a group of owls was a ‘wisdom’? And isn’t it a ‘parliament’ of rooks?

  25. Dominic
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    PS – it is a wol not an owl! Or it is if you know Winnie the Pooh.

    http://www.just-pooh.com/owl.html

    What other owls are there from literature?

    • Posted April 17, 2012 at 2:39 am | Permalink

      There’s Merlyn’s talking owl, Archimedes, in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.

      And Hedwig in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

      /@

    • Posted April 17, 2012 at 2:40 am | Permalink

      PS. Lots more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fictional_birds_of_prey

    • RFW
      Posted April 17, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      A real owl in literature: Gerald Durrell’s pet scops owl, named iirc “Archimedes”, which he owned during his youthful years on Corfu, whither the family had fled from England for financial reasons.

      Look for “My Family and Other Animals”, “Birds, Beasts, and Relatives”, and “Garden of the Gods.” One stray episode in “Fillets of Plaice”. Absolutely hilarious books that will be giving readers pleasure for many many decades yet to come.

      Durrell was the brother of the famous writer Lawrence Durrell, and in later years owned a private zoo on the island of Jersey where endangered species were a specialty. If find his animal-hunting books of less worth than the Corfu boyhood books.

  26. emmageraln
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on emmageraln.

  27. Roz
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    “The wise old owl sat on the oak,

    The more he saw, the less he spoke.

    The less he spoke, the more he heard

    Why can’t we be like that wise bird?”

  28. Posted May 24, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Ah ah! Pronounce “serrurier” is not so difficult! But thank you, “chouette” post!


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