Owls have long been known for their wisdom and knowledge but where did this association come from? In most African folklore, owls are harbingers of bad omens and even death, possibly due to their mainly nocturnal habits. In more westernised beliefs, Athena, in Greek mythology and similarly, Minerva, in Roman mythology are both the goddesses of wisdom. Each goddess is accompanied by a little owl (Athene noctua) which is a species found in the warmer parts of Europe, Asia, Korea and North Africa. Stories go that this little owl acted as their messenger and that Athena in particular could transform herself between human and owl forms. She was often depicted with large, gleaming eyes which possibly led to the belief of both Athena and owls being ‘all-seeing’ and ‘all-knowing’. The etymology around stories of Athena suggest the same. It is these portrayals that have led to owls being used as a symbol for knowledge and wisdom.
For me, owls are one of the most exciting things too see on evening game drive. With an array of beautiful calls, a multitude of shapes and sizes and large gleaming eyes, the opportunity to view and photograph owls by spotlight is priceless.
However, their value to the world goes much further than fascination and fable. One of the most incredible and interesting adaptations of owls is that of silent flight. Owls flight feathers have evolved a serrated edge or small saw-toothed feathers that break up the air as it passes over the primary feathers. Diurnal birds have not developed this. When one hears a vulture or eagle take off, there is a loud flapping sound due to the turbulence created across the entire surface of the wing. These small serrations on the owls feathers result in the air volume being broken up and diffused, thus reducing the sound. There is also a layer of soft downy feathers on the bottom half of the wings and legs which act as sound absorbers for fast air moving over the flight feathers. The advantage of silent flight is that the owls can hunt at night without their presence being detected by prey species.
Bio-mimicry is an ever growing field where people have taken systems from nature to solve human problems. Engineers have observed this exceptional evolution in owls and decided to copy the design. While research is still ongoing, noise problems created by the movement of aircrafts in particular have been addressed by adding a brush-like strip to the front of the wing as well as a soft textured layer to the underside surface of the aircraft for landing. A more tangible example of this mechanism was used in Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains. By adding serrations to key structures on the train, the sound was reduced to such a level that would be accepted by local Japanese law. This train also used designs from other bird species, in particular the kingfisher to further minimise sound impact (For further reading, click here.)
I have become more and more intrigued by what nature can teach us; on an spiritual level as well as a practical one. Nature’s systems work and it has done so for millions of years. If we can harness this ancient knowledge I truly believe we can solve other, more prevalent environmental issues and create a sustainable and balanced future.
Have you come across any exceptional examples of bio-mimicry? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Written and photographed by: Andrea Campbell