The Secret Life of the OWL
title image for The Secret Life of the OWL


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First published in Great Britain in 2017 by Doubleday

an imprint of Transworld Publishers

Copyright © John Lewis-Stempel 2017
Cover design and illustrations by Beci Kelly/TW

John Lewis-Stempel has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

Illustrations by Beci Kelly

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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Version 1.0 Epub ISBN 9781473542518

ISBN 9780857524560

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About the Book
Title Page
Prologue: The Owl in the Wood
Introduction: O is for Owl
I: What is an Owl?
II: The Owls of Britain
III: Humans and Owls
Epilogue: The Lord of the Night
British and International Owl Societies
About the Author


John Lewis-Stempel is a writer and farmer. His previous books include The Wild Life: A Year of Living on Wild Food, Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field, which won the 2015 Wainwright Prize, The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Wainwright Prize, and Where Poppies Blow, which won the prize. John writes for Country Life and won the BMSE Columnist of the Year Award in 2016. He lives on the borders of England and Wales with his wife and two children.


‘Dusk is filling the valley. It is the time of the gloaming, the owl-light. Out in the wood, the resident tawny has started calling,


There is something about owls. They feature in every major culture from the Stone Age onwards. They are creatures of the night, and thus of magic. They are the birds of ill tidings, avian messengers from the Other Side. But owls – with the sapient flatness of their faces, their big, round eyes, their paternal expressions – are also reassuringly familiar. We see them as wise, like Athena’s owl, and loyal, like Harry Potter’s Hedwig. Human-like, in other words.

No other species has so captivated us.

In The Secret Life of the Owl, John Lewis-Stempel explores the legends and history of the owl. And in vivid, lyrical prose, he celebrates this magnificent creature, whose natural powers are as fantastic as any myth.

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The Owls

Among the black yews, their shelter,

the owls are ranged in a row,

like alien deities, the glow

of their red eyes pierces. They ponder.

They perch there without moving,

till that melancholy moment

when quenching the falling sun,

the shadows are growing.

Their stance teaches the wise

to fear, in this world of ours,

all tumult, and all movement:

Mankind drunk on brief shadows

always incurs a punishment

for his longing to stir, and go.

Charles Baudelaire (1821–67),

translated by A. S. Kline

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The Owl in the Wood

THE TAWNY OWL in Three Acre Wood sometimes glides over my head as he takes an evening circuit. (The animals, like us, have their rituals.) There are times when he comes within three feet – two even? – and I cannot tell, so quiet is his flight … except for a slight weightiness in the air around me. This is at twilight, so when I look up, I see his stub of shadow in the sky. At night when he passes overhead he is subtext, something present but unseen.

We farm pigs, sheep and cattle to the edge of the wood (and sometimes in it), so Old Brown and I are well acquainted. I go about my business, he about his. To be accepted by an owl you must be a familiar in the scene. Owls are fearful of the new.

Old Brown likes to sit on an ornamental, twist-barked chestnut tree just inside the wood. I walked up to him last week, in evening’s fire-glow, and he observed my approach with professorial focus. Birds know intention. So I kept my hands in my coat pockets, to prove the pax. I suppose he let me approach to within ten feet, until he flew off on his slow, moth wings; the lord of the night. There was no alarm. He had simply lost interest, and had better things to do than spend time human-watching.

I, on the other hand, had no greater want than to go owl-watching.

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O is for Owl


The word owl goes back to the ule of Anglo-Saxon times, and has equivalents across Europe (French hibou, German Eule, Dutch uil, Latin ulula), all of them derived from some root-word used by the Ancients to denote and imitate the cry of the wolf. Like the howling wolf, the howling owl is a creature of the night, thus of magic.

Night is when evil deeds are done. Accordingly, no witch’s potion has ever been complete without a portion of owl (in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act IV, the witches famously want a wing of ‘howlet’), no Gothic novel finished without an owl’s ghostly hooting, no horror flick ended without a big close-up of an owl’s staring eyes. Even such a consummate twentieth-century literary technician as Sylvia Plath was unable to resist a dab of ‘pale, raptorial’ owl in her poetry to suggest the menace possessing a New England town.

Night is desolation, and so is the habitat the owl makes its resort. The prophet Isaiah foresaw the overthrow of Babylon, after which, amid the wasteland, ‘owls shall dwell there’. Owls belong to ruins, woods and moors. Truly, they are wild birds.

Owls carry out their lives when we, diurnal beings, are asleep. Nocturnality is as rare in birds as it is in humans; less than 3 per cent of avians work after sunset.

Owls, then, are Other. They are beyond the pale of light, civilization, goodness. When the medieval English needed a neologism for the crime of the midnight smuggling of wool fleeces to France, what did they invent? ‘Owling’.

Poor owls. If they do venture to fly by day, this bodes ill, because it is the natural order turned upside down. Shakespeare in Julius Caesar had a daytime owl portend Caesar’s end:

Yesterday the bird of night did sit,

Even at noonday, upon the market place,

Hooting and shrieking.

And yet the owl is also a positive favourite in the nursery. The owl, depicted as kindly and sagacious (if unable to spell), is Wol in A. A. Milne’s Pooh stories, the bookish Wise Owl in Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit saga, and the co-star of Edward Lear’s nonsense poem, ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’.

With its upright stance, big eyes and large sapiens-similar face the owl is easily anthropomorphized (and manufactured into a cuddly toy). Even die-hard ornithologists, when they encounter Athene noctua, the little owl, see a stern parental expression on its face. Snowy owls have the demeanour of disdainful ice kings and queens. Tawnies, like Wol, look gruffly benevolent.

There is something about owls. More than any other family of birds they produce a reaction in us, and have done so across time and continents. It is atavistic; we are genetically programmed to care for lookalikes. In ancient times the owl was known as the ‘human-headed bird’. We fall for that manlike face.

I am writing this on the western edge of England in November, during that uncertain half-hour when day and night overlap as in a Venn diagram, when dusk is filling the valley like silt tide. Some call it the gloaming, others the ‘owl-light’.

Out in the wood behind the house, our resident tawny owl has started calling.


Yes, Old Brown’s call is ghostly. But it is also a benediction on the land; owls only hunt where there is life to kill.

So, to humans an owl is many things between Good and Bad. But what is an owl unto itself?

The Owl and the Pussy-cat