Owls, unmediated

For a few weeks I’d been hearing about the famous Berkeley owls of Claremont Canyon. A pair of Great Horned Owls had built a nest right along a popular hiking trail about two minutes from the Claremont Hotel, and were raising one or two chicks. They had become avian celebrities, delighting hikers and dog-walkers even as they would swoop down at passing dogs whom they perceived as a threat to their young.

On Sunday morning, Sam and I headed over to take a look. We joined the little crowd of paparazzi ogling and photographing the nest. It was in a eucalyptus right next to the trail, and a chick was easily visible even without binoculars. It took a while to spot the mother owl, who was keeping watch from a tree about twenty yards away, but we eventually found her too.

“Didn’t the owl in Winnie the Pooh have a sign pointing directly to his house?  Don’t they all have that?” joked my friend Susie today when I was giving her directions on how to find the nest.

It struck me that nearly all of us urban Americans — myself included — are much more familiar with fictional, cartoon or designer owls than we are with real ones. Think about it. Owls are common in children’s books (Sam and the Firefly! Hedwig in Harry Potter! Owl in Winnie the Pooh!) and marketing (from the low-tech owl on those old bags of Wise potato chips to the high-tech, stylized owl logo of Hootsuite). Most of us come up with an image of owls based on these caricatures rather than on the actual bird.

That’s true for a lot of nature — even spilling over into food. I consumed a lot more cherry Life Savers than actual cherries when I was a kid.  And Cherry Life Savers taste nothing like actual cherries. In fact, they taste nothing like fruit.

Yet if you asked me as a child what “cherry” tasted like, I would have immediately thought of the Life Saver. I still sort of do. Ditto for a bunch of other fruit flavors… pineapple, grape, lemon. Even though a grape Popsicle is a far cry from what an actual vineyard-grown grape tastes like.

I know this isn’t the biggest deal in the world. Civilization isn’t going to rise or fall because most American kids have seen more Disney birds and animals than real, living birds and animals.

But still, it’s a little unnerving.

We all think we “know” animals and birds and plants and the food we eat.

While in reality, that “knowledge”  has been filtered and mediated and refracted through the pervasive fun-house mirror of mass media and marketing.


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3 Responses to “Owls, unmediated”

  1. Susie M Says:

    So true, so true. How many of us know the shriek of a hawk from some Disney movie? But how many have heard it in person?

    Mark and i were in the hot tub a few nights back and a giant white owl (barn, I suppose) flew silently by the deck rail. It was amazing. We’d heard it hunting before, some screeches and hoots. And then to actually catch a glimpse of it soaring by us! Wow! It was so silent that if we hadn’t seen it, we’d never have known it was nearby.

  2. steve54b Says:

    It’s something special to see something like that in, or so close to, an urban environment. Nowadays – perhaps even for a quite awhile by now – I see more “wildlife” in “preserves” in the midsts of suburban or urban settings. There’s an ambivalence I experience around how nice it is, from one perspective, to see in such preserves creatures I might otherwise never see; yet, from another perspective, how much that type of experience seems to pale in contrast to being in real “countryside” or wilderness. I am reminded of Tom Paxton’s “Whose Garden Was This?”, which could be heard as heavy or alarmist, but is really for me a wake up call to be thoroughly appreciative of the gifts of natural beauty, especially in its natural setting.

    Thank you so very much, Ilana, for all your engaging and insightful thoughts, in all that you keep sharing with us.

  3. lindseycrittenden Says:

    Yes! I never thought about this (LifeSaver as fruit, etc) but it makes total sense. Lip Smackers seem to be the default fruit for me — lemon — remember Bonne Bell?? Of course, the only birds that wind up near where I live are pigeons. Growing up, I went to sleep every night to the sound of the owl that lived in a tree on our neighbor’s property–it was a wonderful, haunting sound, and one that takes me right back. Thanks, Ilana!

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