The Giant Eagle-Owl, Bubo lacteus, is the largest nocturnal bird of prey in Africa. As in most birds of prey, the female is larger than the male, weighing up to 3 kg with a 140m wingspan.
I have seen them many times in the wild, usually perched motionless in the glare of a spotlight, where they look almost white (you can understand why their Latin name means “milky”). During the day, they’re almost invisible but for being mobbed by smaller birds, usually fork-tailed drongos. They will often call day and night, a grunting, thoroughly unappealing sound that is their worst quality. The fledglings are also very noisy, and will whistle piercingly and incessantly for food.
A Giant Eagle-Owl will kill anything she can overpower. At night, she fears nothing. Healthy adults have no natural predators. They have even been known to attack sleeping eagles and will kill other owls.
Owls have a strong association with the goddess Athena, who symbolised wisdom in Ancient Greece. Across Africa, owls are associated with superstition and witchcraft. It’s interesting that people sometimes kill owls for the same reason they attack women accused of being witches – an irrational association with evil. We always fear that which can see what we cannot.
In fact, the association of owls with wisdom or witchcraft has no basis in fact – owls are vital to the control of rodent numbers, and they’re not particularly bright. Much as I admire raptors for their beauty and strength, I can’t pretend that they can hold a candle to crows or parrots when it comes to intelligence. They’re the jocks of the bird world: physically impressive, with superb weaponry, but not the smartest.
But as symbols of wisdom, owls are powerful, and I love them.