There is a white owl flies near the river, close to my home. From its size, shape and flight pattern I recognise it as a barn owl. Barn owls are normally pale in colour, white below and a light buff above, but this one seems white all over.
Few other creatures are as deeply imagined as owls. Singularly creatures of the night, they are usually associated with foreboding and doom. If we are afraid of the night, the owl hints at where that fear comes from.
The relationship goes back a long way. A painting of an owl has been found amongst cave paintings at Chauvet, its head turned through 180 degrees to look back at us. This unique ability sets it apart from other creatures, endowing it with strange powers of divination. The Romans thought it so, and associated it with impending disaster.
Shakespeare has many references to owls. Lady Macbeth shudders at the sound of an owl hooting at the moment of Duncan’s death. And in Henry VI (part 3) the doomed King Henry says of Gloucester, his executioner:
The owl shriek’d at thy birth,–an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howl’d, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rook’d her on the chimney’s top,
And chattering pies in dismal discords sung.
The image below was taken by the great wildlife photographer, Eric Hoskings, in 1948. It captures a rare moment of synchronicity, a subject whose aesthetic power reaches far beyond its literal value.