Of Owls and Richard the Third: Part 1

by Theodore Dalrymple (May 2013)

Not long ago at a conference I was asked whether I thought that boredom was an important cause of bad, and worse than bad, behaviour. I said that I thought that it probably was, though I could not positively prove it. At any rate, those who behave badly often claim to do so because they are bored, and no one claims to behave well because he is bored.

But even if it is accepted that boredom causes, or rather explains, bad behaviour, it cannot be the final explanation: for why are people bored? Is not the world interesting enough for them? What would a world be like that they found sufficiently interesting to keep them on the straight and narrow path that leads to good behaviour? It is a terrible fate for a creature endowed with consciousness and self-consciousness to find the world uninteresting.

My problem is the opposite: I find the world too interesting. This means that I am all too easily distracted, like a child confronted with too many good things to eat. I pursue things that interest me until something else distracts me, which means that I master nothing. But at least I am not bored.

I happened the other day to walk past a charity shop (called thrift shops in America) in whose window were displayed two books, one about owls and the other a biography of Richard III. Both owls and Richard III have played a small part in my life, and I went into the shop and bought them. Together they cost less than a packet of cigarettes, the smoking of which is disproportionately encountered among the bored community – we must now call all people who share a characteristic a community.

I shall deal with my relationship with Richard III in another article; suffice it to say that I became more than normally interested in him as a result of buying the book. Here I shall deal with my relationship with owls.

Owls, I confess, play a only very small part in my life. In the little town in which I live when I am in England there is a woman who is always accompanied on her shopping expeditions by a pet owl. No one finds this astonishing or, if they do, lets their astonishment be known; this is either from a laudable desire not to intrude upon the owner or not to gratify her desire for notice. And in France a pair of tawny owls to-whit to-whoo every summer night in a tree a hundred yards or so (to judge by the sound of it) from the house. I never tire of listening them; I also never see them, and so their lives are a closed book to me. They therefore reassure me that there is mystery still in the world; for a world without mystery, in which everything were revealed and known, would be a terrible place. Knowledge is wonderful, the more of it the better, but omniscience would be a nightmare.

The first owl of my life was Owl in Winnie the Pooh. I think he had a delayed effect upon my intellectual development, or perhaps I should say upon my Weltanschauung. Owl held himself to be intellectually the superior of every other character in Pooh: in fact he was the intellectual among them, and took himself very seriously, as the embodiment of knowledge and wisdom. But he wasn’t very good at spelling (he signed himself WOL) nor were his thoughts always of the most brilliant. He put a notice up outside his home in a tree asking visitors to ‘PLEZ CNOKE IF AN RNSR IS NOT REQID.’ Of course, I delighted as a child in the absurdity of this: why would anyone go to his door if he did not want an answer (notwithstanding the fact that I sometimes rang doorbells myself and ran away).

So Owl gave me the first intimation in my life that all are not wise who claim to be learned. And Owl was a hint also that the clever could be the most foolish of all.

But why did owls symbolise wisdom in the first place? The splendid photos in my book, succinctly titled Owls, suggested a reason: owls seem to have only two states, the serene calmness of sleep and the most intense alertness when awake. Try as we might not to anthropomorphise, owls look serious; they indulge in no foolish or redundant movement. This is nonsense, of course: owls are bird-brained. And one of the things that I learnt from this book, delightful to me because completely useless, is that the Owl of Minerva does not necessarily spread her wings at dusk: nearly forty per cent of the 133 extant species of owls are diurnal, not nocturnal. I bet you didn’t know that.    

Reading Owls brought back my second encounter with these birds. It was with their pellets rather than with the birds themselves. I had quite forgotten that these pellets are not faeculant but rather the product of regurgitation because owls have no crops. As I learnt from this book, owls have relatively low acidity stomachs, and tend to swallow their prey whole. They are bad at digesting bones, hair and the chitin of insects, so they dispose of them by regurgitation.

I remember (vaguely) sifting through owl pellets on a nature-study weekend when I was about fifteen. The purpose of this was to learn the diet of owls. Owls taught me (alas, nearly half a century later) how important this analysis was, for it indicated not only how owls lived but – interestingly – proved the law of unintended consequences.

Cape barn owls were introduced on to islands in the Seychelles in an attempt to control the rodents there that were destroying crops: for in their own environment, Cape barn owls feed copiously on such rodents. At about the same time of their introduction into the Seychelles, however, the indigenous and unique avian fauna of the islands began to die off. This was thought initially to be because of illegal hunting and trapping by local people; but the analysis of Cape barn owl pellets soon showed that it was the owls, not the local people, who were responsible. The owls had been introduced to reduce the rodents, but they reduced the birds instead; this was because the unsuspecting birds were the easier prey. Not only humans, but owls take the path of least resistance.

The law of unintended consequences is one of the hardest for people to learn because it is so unflattering to our conception of ourselves as rational beings, and because (if it is a law) it suggests inherent limits to our power. We shall never fail to commit errors.

Some of the hidden historical information in Owls was to me fascinating. Ornithologists have long studied the numbers of birds which fluctuate markedly as conditions vary. Obviously predators depend greatly upon their prey; and the numbers of their prey (in the case of owls, predominantly rodents and other small mammals) depends on the state of vegetation, which goes through regular cycles. I had not quite realised just how accurate Pharaoh’s dream was, a dream that applies (allegorically) to nature as to the business cycle:

Behold, there come seven years of great plenty
throughout all the land of Egypt:
and there shall arise after them seven years of famine;
and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; 
and the famine shall consume the land;

and the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason
of that famine following; for it shall be very grievous.  

The cycle in nature may be shorter than seven years, but the description in the Bible is not an exaggeration. Lemming populations explode in good years, as do the populations of owls that prey upon them; but then the collapse comes, just as it does when traders think the bull market will never end, and the lemmings and owls are decimated by famine.

The historical information that truly astonished me in Owls was that studies of bird populations in Europe by ornithologists continued even throughout the First and Second World Wars. We learn, for example, which years were good and which bad for barn owls during the German occupation of the Netherlands, even as the population was close to starvation. The authors do not point out how strange this is, but I found it very moving. Others, of course, might find it disconcerting that people could seriously concern themselves with such matters even in the midst of the cataclysm surrounding them; but to me the power of mental abstraction from the surrounding cataclysm was a proof of the human spirit. In its quiet way, the continuation of the study of bird populations was as heroic as outright resistance.

One method by which ornithologists of the past estimated fluctuations in the numbers of owls was by the numbers brought to taxidermists for stuffing. The fashion for stuffed birds in glass cases seems to have passed and so this method is no longer used; but I am glad to have learnt another such (to me) completely useless fact. 

Reading Owls destroyed one of my fantasies: that it would be good to live as an owl (provided, of course, that one had human consciousness to go with it). I had assumed that owls had no enemies, that they sat on their trees and contemplated life when not actually hunting, living as at the peak of a pyramid; that theirs was an easy life. How wrong I was! Owls have less than a one in four chance of surviving to their first birthday (though the oldest owl recorded was 68 years old). They often starve to death. And just because owls may be grouped in the same classificatory families does not mean that they have family solidarity; indeed the larger owls often prey on the smaller. If Swift had read Owls he might have written:

So nat'ralists observe, an owl
Hath smaller owls that on him fuel;
And these have smaller owls to bite 'em.
And so proceeds Ad infinitum.

I also learnt in Owls about the superiority of the Swedish social security system to the British. The Swedes noticed that the population of eagle owls had declined in their country. Owls are relatively easy to breed in captivity, and the Swedes did so. More difficult, however, is the successful release of owls bred in captivity into the wild; having got used to being fed, they fall into a state of dependency.

The Swedes, with their typical intelligent pragmatism, devised a system of rehabilitation for their home-bred owls. They put their owls in open cages into the field. The owls would fly out; to begin with would return to the cage to be fed but as they learnt to find food for themselves they would return less and less until they did not return at all. Their high rate of attrition was no higher than that of birds bred in the wild. The Swedes used social security for owls as a means to restoring them to independence.

If the Swedish ornithologists had been British, however, they would never have let the owls into the wild but kept them in their cages and gone on feeding them. They would have wanted to keep the owls dependent for ever, not for the owls’ sake, but for fear of making themselves redundant and losing their jobs.

There is thus a lot to be learnt from a book about owls, and I was pleased to see from the back cover of my copy that the book had sold more than 50,000 copies since first published in 1970. My copy was dated 1995, which means that it had sold 2000 copies a year for a quarter of a century (there were thirteen printings, evenly spaced, in that time); interest in owls, while it continues no doubt to be a minority one, is perpetual, and that those who have it are not likely to be bored.

There was another aspect of the book that pleased me. The authors were John Sparks and Tony Soper. There was no biographical information in the book about them whatsoever. This meant one of two things: either the authors and publisher thought the subject was more interesting or important than the authors, or they were so famous that readers needed no biographical information. Looking them up on the internet, I found that this might have been so, for they made nature documentaries for BBC television for many years. Not having had a television since this book was first published, people who are nationally, internationally or even world famous are to me completely unknown.

But even if there were no biographical information about the authors given in the book for the second rather than the first reason, I was reassured. For it seems to me that theirs must have been a justified fame rather than a meretricious celebrity. They were people of real accomplishment, real learning. There must have been a time when even television fame was the reward of merit.         

Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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