Boobook sings Emily’s tune, not Shakespeare’s ‘songs of death’

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Boobook looking far into the night. Photo: Enam Ul Haque

The big, forward-looking eyes on a flat and somewhat human-like face distinguish the owl from the other birds. No wonder the owl always fascinated and overawed the ancient humans

On the very first night at our guesthouse in Bharaura village, two kilometres from Srimangal town, we were thrilled to hear the familiar tune: oo-uk, oo-uk, oo-uk...

We have been hearing the same melodic tune on our every stay there for over 20 years. Over the years, Bharaura has changed quite a bit, not its nightly tune.

We knew that the tune was the yearning of a Brown Hawk Owl, better known as Brown Boobook. The thoughtful male owl was simply wishing his mate to know that he was sitting right there in the dark and thinking about her. Of all the owls of Bangladesh, Brown Boobook has the sweetest refrains. 

We guess the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson had heard the pleasing notes of the Northern Boobook many times at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the 19th century. In the following elegant lines, she expressed her wishes to hear the owl's soft song at midnight:  

I only ask a tune

At midnight – Let the owl select

His favourite refrain.

We, however, asked for more than the favourite refrain from our boobook. We wished to know the condition of his health. We switched on a torch to shine a little light on him. He was facing away from us. He looked back; his yellow eyes appeared large and disquieting in the torchlight.  

We switched our torch off. The boobook turned to face us. We shined the light on him again for a second to assess how the singer was doing health-wise. He ignored the offensive light and fearlessly looked far into the night. We were just happy to see a healthy and robust male with his faraway gaze.

The big, forward-looking eyes on a flat and somewhat human-like face distinguish the owl from the other birds. No wonder the owl always fascinated and overawed the ancient humans. Many ancient cultures greatly venerated the owl as a wise and benevolent creature, not one to abhor or be afraid of. 

In ancient Indian culture, the owl was associated with Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. People continue to worship the owl with Lakshmi in modern India. The Mohave Indians of Arizona, on the other hand, believed that people become owls as they die, and the owls eventually turn into the whining prairie air.

The Brown Boobook left its low perch and disappeared into the thin air of Bharaura village. Soon we saw the silhouette of it flying over the stubble next to our guesthouse, probably to find a field rat, a gecko or a cricket and break its daylong fast. While not on the job of gracing the gods with its presence, an owl must find its own food.

The early Greeks associated the owl with their charming virgin goddess Athena. One side of their silver coin had the head of Athena and the other had the bold impression of an owl. That currency was widely used for five centuries, starting at 506 BCE.

But the popular adoration and respect for the owls were not to last forever. The owl became associated with witchcraft in the middle ages, first in Europe and then in the Americas. All sorts of people were accused of witchcraft, and the witches were thought to be able to turn themselves into owls, the dwellers of the darkness.

Countless people were charged with witchcraft, and some 50,000 people were burnt at the stake, hanged or beheaded in Europe from the middle of the 15th century onward. Owls, too, were destroyed wholesale since they could all be evil witches in disguise.

As the people's perception evolved, the poets and playwrights of Europe painted in forbidding dark ink the sinister and creepy spectre of the owl. The great Shakespeare was no exception - the owls, goblins and spirits crawled freely all over his plays.

To many a protagonist of Shakespeare, the unfortunate nocturnal bird was an 'evil sign', and the enemies were 'ominous and fearful owls of death.' A messenger delivering bad news from the battlefield was reviled by incensed Richard III with the following expletives:

Out on you, owls!

Nothing but songs of death?

Soon the Brown Boobook returned to the Mahogany grove by our guesthouse and resumed his soft song: oo-uk, oo-uk. We did not know if he had his breakfast in the short interval between the two bouts of songs. We surely knew that his tune was not a song of death; it could only be a refrain to please someone like Emily Dickinson!

By the end of the 18th century, the people's obsession with imagined witchcraft and the appalling persecution of perfectly innocent people and owls became the regrettable things of the past. In the next two centuries, the owl thankfully resumed its earlier position of popular awe and admiration in Europe and America.

We found our Brown Boobook on a high perch in a grove near our guesthouse the next day. The owl did not look too troubled to see us staring at him in broad daylight. He seemed to be used to seeing people and cattle of the village pass by his daytime roost often. In the Bharaura village, the owls were neither honoured nor persecuted.

The owls in Bangladesh have maintained a low profile and did not go through the great cycles of veneration and persecution the owls elsewhere had to experience over the aeons. Neither our owls showed up on the currency, nor got burnt at the stake with a bunch of witches.

An elderly person of the Bharaura village told us, "The hoots of an owl could be a good or bad omen. It all depends on the number of hoots. Is it odd or even! Odd is bad; even is good. But these days, brother, who has the time to count hoots!"

Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam.

From The Business Standard

  • Owl
  • Birds

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