Interview with Jenny Dolfen
Owl in Mixed Media
News for August
The Wonderful World of Owlsby Jenny Heidewald
There was an old owl lived in an oak,
The more he heard, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard;
O, if men were more like that wise bird!
--Traditional nursery rhyme
Owls are a widespread species of raptor; from tundra to desert to forest, they inhabit every continent except for Antarctica. For centuries, the owl has fascinated, terrified, and inspired humans. There are over two hundred known species of these interesting birds in the world; they belong to the family order Strigiformes, which is divided into two distinct lines: Tytonidae, which includes barn owls and bay owls, and Strigidae, which are considered "regular" owls.
The influence of the owl in culture reaches far back into history. They have been depicted on cavern walls, such as the Chauvet Caves (France), and as petroglyphs on rocks -- one being the Spedis Owl, which was rescued from an area that was flooded in 1957 due to The Dalles Dam (USA).
Possibly due to the species mostly nocturnal nature, active when the human eye can't see well and at times eerie sounding bird calls, many cultures believed that the owl's call or the sight of an owl was a harbinger of death.
The opposite was true in ancient Greece; the owl was revered. The bird of Athena, their goddess of wisdom and strategy in war, is the little owl (Athene noctua, "Anthena's night bird"); Athena has been depicted with an owl sitting on her, or, as she was purported to be a shape shifter, as an owl herself. The roots of the owl's reputation for being wise stems from when a little owl chose the Acropolis temple dedicated to Athena as a place to have her nest. The Athenians, already enamored with little owls because of their large and shining eyes, said that the little owl was wise for choosing such a spot, and looked for her when entering the temple. The owl is featured on ancient Greek coins, with the goddess on the other side. The Greek army also considered seeing an owl a sign of victory; in The Battle of Marathon an owl flying overhead rallied the troops and they were victorious over the Persians. Many years later the story of this victory impressed the Romans so much that they gave an owl companion to their similar goddess, Minerva, also bestowing upon her the penchant for wisdom. The Romans spread the tales of the owl as a wise bird to Scandinavia, where they call the little owl "Minervauggla". On the flip side of the coin, the Romans had deep-seated beliefs that to hear the call of an owl portended death, and it was rumored that they would strive to capture and kill the bird in order to stave off this fate. Therefore, in addition to spreading tales of Minerva's wise little owl, they also brought the belief that owls were bearers of bad news. So one can see how that carried on to the Middle Ages, when the owl was considered the familiar of witches, and there was a custom at one point to nail an owl to doors to ward off lightning and bad luck.
In Native American culture, beliefs ranged from the owl being the embodiment of a person's soul, a warning of a death, to a guide for the afterlife, to a sign of assurances of victory in battle, wherein the tribes warriors would hoot like owls as they ran into battle. The American Indian Menominee tribe has a tale that attributes the creation of night and day to an owl (Totoba, the saw-whet owl) and a rabbit (Wabus). In some African cultures today, the owl is still regarded as evil and is killed on sight, while Western culture now popularly associates the owl with wisdom. On the Hawaiian islands the pueo (Asio flammeus sandwichensis, related to short eared owls), or "Hawaiian Owl" was revered as a god, and the barn owl has been honored for centuries in Tartary due to one saving the life of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century.
In most species of owl, the female is larger than the male, but the male still has a lower pitched call. Contrary to popular belief, owls make calls other than the stereotypical "whoo hoo", or "hoot hoot hoo-hoooo". They range from whistle like, to barking, and it is interesting to note that the screech owl doesn't screech, but instead has a burbling, or bouncy, whistle-like call. In fact, the common barn owl would be better named the screech owl; as the barn owl makes a hissing and screeching noise. If you listen to the calls of owls, you will understand how chilling some of these calls would be to humans who couldn't see what was making the noises in what seemed to be pitch-blackness. For audio clips of various owls go to The Owl Pages, the address for which I have listed at the end of this article.
The exact rankings for smallest and largest owls are contested, though the least pygmy owl ( Glaucidium minutissimum , 4.7" to 5.9"), and the elf owl ( Micrathene whitney, 4.7" - 5.5") are among the smallest owls, while the Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo, 23" - 28"), the endangered and secretive Blackiston's fish owl (Bubo blakistoni, 24" to 20"), and the grey great owl (Strix nebulosa, 24" to 33") are among the largest, the latter being longer rather than heavier. The snowy owl is one of the heaviest owls. In my illustration, I have chosen to depict the grey owl for the longest owl, and the elf owl as the smallest.
There are three stances that an owl takes, normal/relaxed, scared/hiding, and aggressive. If an owl feels threatened or frightened, it will make itself smaller and elongated, turn itself sideways to the perceived threat, and some will draw the wing up almost in the style of the cliche of Dracula masking his lower face with his cape. If the owl species has ear tufts they will be raised, and the owl will either close its eyes all the way or leave them slitted. When an owl is on the defensive it will make itself appear larger by fluffing its feathers out, along with raising its wings out and downward; often this is accompanied by clicking of the beak and hissing.
Humanlike with their forward facing eyes and round faces, there are many differently shaped owl heads. The barn owl, and all of the family Tytonidae, has a unique heart-shaped facial disk that sets it apart from typical owls (Strigade). The Barred eagle owl (Bubo sumatranus) has ear tufts that extend horizontally, the northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula), true to its name, looks more like a hawk. The owls in the following illustration are not to scale, and they are, left to right, top to bottom: Barn owl, Barred eagle owl (Bubo sumatranus), northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula), burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia , great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus), northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus), grey owl (Strix nebulosa), and long eared owl Asio otus.
Due to how large the owl's eyes are, which enables more light to enter the eye, they are immobile in the skull and held in place by bones called sclerotic rings. Because of this, the owl uses its head and neck to adjust its vision to see clearly, thus you see the owl bobbing its head. This also is why the owl has such a flexible neck, which it can turn two hundred and seventy degrees, and just about completely upside down. To ensure a continued blood supply to the brain while they are looking all about them, the owl has a specially developed set of jugular veins. Owls, contrary to popular belief, do not all hunt at night; a lot of them are active at dusk, and a few hunt during broad daylight. The eye color of an owl is usually one of three, yellow, reddish orange, and very dark brown. In an interesting side note, the owl's pupils can react to light individually, so one pupil can be larger than the other. The owl does not have eyesight or hearing that is terribly better than humans, and many owls memorize their territories which enables them to move with confidence while hunting at night.
Owls have an interestingly developed sense of sound. Many have asymmetrical skulls and ear openings that enable them to not only locate if a sound is to the left or right, but also if it is above or below. Another factor that helps the owl hear is its feathered facial disk. An owl can have up to six different shaped feathers in its facial disk; these help funnel sound towards the bird's ear. The feathers that some owls have at the tops of their head, called ear tufts or "horns", have nothing to do with their ears or hearing, but rather serve as a way to communicate, indicating different moods, or blend into their surroundings better. Not all owls that have ear tufts have erected at all times, the short-eared owl is one example of this.
Wings and Feathers
The owl is known for flying silently, the reason for this is that they have soft feathers, with a velvety upper surface. This velvet-like pile reduces the "swish" noise that you hear with other birds as they fly. The primary feathers on an owl's wing is serrated and fringed, like a comb, reducing wing noise even more. Some owls are noisier due to their prey type, one is the burrowing owl which eats insects. The owl's wing tends toward long and broad; this makes for low wing loading and makes it easier for the bird to navigate as it flies slowly, and enables it to carry prey easily.
In general, owls are neutral colors, to better blend in with their surroundings. Owls in colder regions are more likely to be a lighter color, while owls in a more temperate zone lean towards darker and brown, or reddish (rufous), colors. This color difference is "dimorphic plumage", and one example is the eastern screech owl, which has either grey or reddish plumage. There have been mated pairs sighted that have one of each color. Feather patterns can vary by gender as well--for example, snowy owl males tend more towards pure white, with the females having more bars or spots. Owlets are covered with downy feathers that are gradually replaced by adult feathers as they mature.
Owls have four talons, and also a unique joint in the outer front toe enables it to swivel around to the back, so it can have two toes front, two toes back (zygodactyl). Depending on the owl species, they have feathered feet, or not; for example, the snowy owl has a profusion of feathers on its feet to protect it from cold, while the fishing owl has none. These feathers keep the feet warm, and help the owl feel things, such as when it is snatching up a mouse. The bottom of the owl's foot is bumpy to help it hold onto prey.
Drawing Owls, Step by Step
Illustrating an Owl Head:
In the following illustration of a screech owl with its ear tufts down, I have drawn the three main angles, front, side, and three quarters view. If you have experience drawing humans, you are already halfway there. An owl's face follows the same principle that a humans face does, thus enabling the use of a circle for the head, and a cross bar to place the eyes and beak. Be sure to look at reference of your chosen owl for feather patterns and facial disk placement. Remember that the eye cannot move in the socket, so place the pupil directly in the center of the eye.
Illustrating the Whole Owl
First, use shapes to depict the basic outline and form of the owl, and then figure out where all the feathers go. It helps to block in the different feather groups. In general, owls have ten primary feathers, eleven to nineteen secondary, and ten to twelve tail feathers. Draw in the feather forms, remembering that the wing feathers have a certain way of lying; the underside will have the first primary feather overlapping the second, and so on, while the top of the wing will have the opposite layout. Those of you with sharp eyes might have noted that I forgot this rule at first on the far wing. Last but not least, the finishing details, inking, the feather pattern, and shading.
Also don't forget the value of just sketching the bird in different poses, these can be quite fun, and lead to some lovely finished pieces.
As always, there is a wealth of information out there on these marvelous birds, you can find out more by reading the books I have included in the resources list. In addition to including beautiful photos of owls, they are comprehensive and thorough. For online resources, The Owl Pages is a comprehensive website, which includes sounds of the owl.
The Owl Pages
Strigid and Tytonid owl head differences, by Earldense
Anatomy Tutorial: Owl Basics, by Addictionhalfway
Owls of the World, by Dr. James R. Duncan
Owls of the United States and Canada: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior, by Wayne Lynch
The Owl and the Woodpecker: Encounters With North America's Most Iconic Birds (With Audio CD), by Paul Bannick (Author, Photographer), and Martyn Stewart(Recorder)
North American Owls: Biology and Natural History, by Paul A. Johnsguard (Author), Louis Agassiz Fuertes (Illustrator)
Owls in Folklore and Natural History, by Virginia C. Holmgren
Owls of North America, by Frances Backhouse
Owls:Wild Guide, by Cynthis Berger
Owls (Zoobooks Series), by Timothy L. Biel
Jenny Heidewald is one of those self-taught artists that has been drawing since she was little; she remembers the exact moment she decided that she wanted to be an artist. Interestingly enough, it was while watching her mom draw the hand of God reaching from the clouds to His followers. Jenny was floored, it seemed to be magic, an image appearing out of nowhere. She thought, "I want
to do THAT!" In addition to writing for EMG-zine, Jenny is a prolific artist who has worked in many mediums. Her current favorite technique is working with colored micron pens, and coloring either with watercolor or Photoshop. Jenny lives in Maryland with her husband. Please check out her Sketchfest, Portrait Adoption, Deviant Art, and Elfwood pages.
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