Flesh and Fear

Understanding Owls by Jemima Parry-JonesUnderstanding Owls: Biology, Management, Breeding, Training, Jemima Parry-Jones (David & Charles, 1998)

We come into the world ready for the world. And in more ways than one. We aren’t just born with sense-organs and a brain designed to use them: we’re born with instinctive likes and dislikes. That’s where phobias come from. The common ones, about heights or contamination or potentially dangerous animals, are based on things that we’ve been facing and surviving for millions of years. Or failing to survive, because we didn’t pay them sufficient attention or respect. Those who did pay sufficient attention and respect were those who had more offspring and passed down the relevant, phobogenic genes.

How precisely those genes encode fear is an interesting question. Are spiders and snakes written into our brains in some sense? Monkeys are instinctively afraid of snakes, for example, and though that fear has to be triggered by example, it is obviously there to be triggered. A mother-monkey apparently reacting with fear to a flower will not induce a fear of flowers in her offspring. But if she reacts with fear to a snake, she will induce a fear of snakes. Monkeys also have special warning-calls for birds of prey. Human beings have been too big for too long to be easily afraid of birds, but we were small enough once to be their prey and genetic memories may linger. That might help explain our fascination with birds of prey. But I don’t think owls are written into our brains the way spiders and snakes probably are.

They do trigger other instincts, however: their uncanny stare, their nocturnal lives, their loud calls and the silence of their flight all help explain why they’re psychologically special to human beings and part of myth and legend around the world. This book is a practical introduction to keeping owls as pets, not general guide, but it has lots of owls in it, so it has lots of uncanny and unblinking eyes too. And a lot of beauty: owls don’t often have elegant shapes, but they often have beautiful feathers. They’re also intelligent birds and can be trained to the hand rather like eagles and falcons. Unlike eagles and falcons, however, they generally hunt small ground-animals and at night, so “Hunting with Owls” is unrewarding and Jemima Parry-Jones gives it only two pages, one of which is mostly taken up by a photo of an eagle owl (Bubo sp.). But it’s an interesting addition to a short but interesting book, with lots of attractive pictures and practical advice.

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