The Secret Lives of Owls

Owls are sad.

Not a secret perhaps when you think about it. But all owls are. They live in barns and eat mice. Wouldn’t you be sad too?

Owls are wise, so the saying goes. The problem is that in the world of birds that gives them very little benefit. Vultures are feared, and have built a career on it. There’s value in being feared, it’s tangible to birds. All birds understand it, only one understands graduation.

The eagle managed to become patriotism incarnate, and alongside that came mismanaged respect. Respect from those with sad lives. Respect from those who care more about birds than the doctors who routinely save them from themselves. Respect from those who’ll frequently mumble “Now there’s a bird with values”. Respect. These people respect the eagle. Does anyone respect the owl?

Across the pond (both Atlantic and rural), ducks and swans get fed by strangers. No one feeds the owls. They’re too clever to need our bread. Even misdirected aggression is more useful for birds than intelligence is. Birds just need to be clever enough to survive — not solve equations.

But those necks!” I hear you cry. Those feats of engineering. Those staples of cartoons. Surely that’s something owls can be happy about? Unfortunately this isn’t the case. Can you imagine the world owls exist in? “You’re so wise owl. Wise old owl. Now do the neck thing. Again. Again”. It’s like if everyone asked Stephen Hawking to “do the voice” at conferences.

So yes, the owl can rotate its neck. A party trick they’re both bored of performing and upset at no longer being asked to do. When kids can see falcons taking out drones the qualities of a neck seem positively quaint. “Twisty neck eh bird? I’ve got a rectangle in my pocket that can talk with space” they’d say, before watching another video of a penguin falling over. Even owls most reluctant existence is disappearing. How would you feel?

Owls are sad. Other birds aren’t. Even the ruthlessly farmed aren’t sad. They don’t know what sadness is. In comparison owls understand machinery their feathered tips have no hope of operating. They yearn to be fearful of children of sticks and magicians with tricks like some of their contemporaries. Instead they’re imagined in caps they’ll never legitimately get to wear.

Owls are sad. They’re sad because of their unfulfilled ambition. They’re sad because they want to be helicopter pilots and midwives, when instead they’re just birds. They’re sad because there’s a loneliness in intelligence. Most of all, they’re sad because they’re clever enough to realise all this.

The secret lives of owls is a sad one. If you listen close enough, you’ll hear it in every ‘hoot’.

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