Messenger of death or just misunderstood bird?

Wednesday, September 1st, 2021 00:00 |
Owls have been linked to dying and misery.

Recently, patients escaped from unidentified hospital moments after an owl paid them a visit. It is believed they ran away because, in African culture, owls are associated with death.

Many people believe that when an owl visits you or your place, someone will die.

In Kenya, this belief can be traced back to almost all tribes. Kikuyus, for example, believe owls are messengers of evil spirits or departed souls whose appearance signifies death and sickness in a homestead.

For Luos and the Luhyas, these birds are signs of bad omens and bad luck. They cause misfortunes and their appearance signifies death or serious diseases in a family.

Fire and ash

Some Kalenjin tribes believe owls are messengers of wizards and sorcerers, and are mainly used for witchcraft.

Whenever they appear, they warn people of certain dangers ahead. Other Kalenjin tribes believe they are messengers of God sent whenever God is angry with people on earth.

If an owl is seen around or heard hooting, Kikuyus would pour salt on fire and throw stones at it to chase it.

The Kalenjins, Luos, and the Luhyas would throw a burning wood at it or throw hot ash at its eyes.

They believed this would kill the bird’s intentions and make it so afraid that it would never come back.

But is it true that owls are agents of death and other misfortunes as most Africans believe? 

Situational screeching

A bird ecologist, Paul Gacheru, says these are just cultural beliefs, but not the truth.

He says that owls have for the longest time been wrongly accused of being a sign of bad omen, yet they are birds like any other.

According to him, seeing an owl or hearing an owl hoot has nothing to do with someone’s death or any other misfortune.

He says owls hoot, screech and scream depending on the situations they are in. For example, since owls are territorial birds and they live singly they hoot to mark their territories.

“Male owls screech to alert their female partners during the mating period. Young owls screech to alert their mothers they are in the nest and they need food, and generally, owls make a sound to locate their prey,” says Gacheru.

According to Paul Muriithi Kibuthu, a conservationist who has been taking care of owls for the last 23 years, this is just a myth that needs to be debunked because human deaths are caused by either illness, accident among other reasons and an owl cannot cause death.

“There is no way a bird can cause death. If it is true that these birds cause deaths, I bet I would have lost all my family members since we interact with the bird often.

My call to Kenyans is that they should stop killing and injuring these birds because they are neither bad luck nor agents of death,” says Muriithi.

He reveals that his journey in trying to conserve owls has not been an easy one because of the stigma and attitude associated with the presence of this bird.

However, he is grateful because some of the community members have accepted to look at owls in a more positive approach.

No sense of smell

“At first many people did not want either to be associated with the birds or me despite the fact that these birds were all around in their areas.

The situation worsened when I started taking in injured owls, they thought I was practicing witchcraft or sorcery.

I made enemies as well as friends all due to my working with owls,” says Muriithi.

To change people’s mindset, after nursing injured owls for about three years, Muriithi went to study more about the misunderstood birds.

It helped him gain more knowledge thus able to appeal to locals to minimise injuries and look at owls in a more positive approach.

Muriithi says to keep owls away, one should keep their compound tidy and clean to avoid rats, other rodents, insects, and reptiles whose presence attracts owls at night.

On why these birds mostly appear at night, Gacheru says a large proportion of them are nocturnal (active at night), but not all are.

A few owls are diurnal (active during the day), and some others are crepuscular, (active at dawn and dusk).

On the claim that the bird being able to smell chemical substances a dying person emits from the mouth that causes them to hover around and make some noise, Gacheru says it is not true because the bird doesn’t feed on the dead.

Besides, owls do not have much of a sense of smell at all, instead they rely on a keen sense of hearing to find their prey.

More on Lifestyle