But granting that the owls did twice the injury to game with which they are credited, it would be repaid many times over by their services. Waterton well says that, if we knew its utility in thinning the country of mice, it would be with us what the ibis was with the Egyptians—a sacred bird. He examined the pellets ejected by a pair of owls that occupied a ruined gateway on the estate. Every pellet contained skeletons of from four to seven mice. Owls, it may be necessary to explain, swallow their food without separating flesh from bone, skin and hair, and afterwards disgorge the indigestible portions rolled up into little balls. In sixteen months the pair of owls above-mentioned had accumulated a deposit of more than a bushel of these pellets, each a funeral urn of from four to seven mice! In the old Portuguese fort of Bassein in Western India I noticed that the earth at the foot of a ruined tower was plentifully mixed with small skulls, jaws and other bones. Taking home a handful and examining them, I found that they were the remains of rats, mice and muskrats.
The owl kills small birds, large insects, frogs and even fishes, but these are extras: its profession is rat-catching and mousing, and only those who have a very intimate personal acquaintance with it know how peculiarly its equipment and methods are adapted to this work. The falcon gives open chase to the wild duck, keeping above it if possible until near enough for a last spurt; then it comes down at a speed which is terrific, and, striking the duck from above, dashes it to the ground. The sparrow hawk plunges unexpectedly into a group of little birds and nips up one with a long outstretched foot before they have time to get clear of each other. The harrier skims over field, copse and meadow, suddenly rounding corners and topping fences and surprising small birds, or mice, on which it drops before they have recovered from their surprise.
The owl does none of these things. For one thing, it hunts in the night, when its sight is keenest and rats are abroad feeding. Its flight is almost noiseless and yet marvellously light and rapid when it pleases. Sailing over field, lane and hedgerow and examining the ground as it goes, it finds a likely place and takes a post of observation on a fence perhaps, or a sheaf of corn. Here it sits, bolt upright, all eyes. It sees a rat emerge from the grass and advance slowly, as it feeds, into open ground. There is no hurry, for the doom of that rat is already fixed. So the owl just sits and watches till the right moment has arrived; then it flits swiftly, softly, silently, across the intervening space and drops like a flake of snow. Without warning, or suspicion of danger, the rat feels eight sharp claws buried in its flesh. It protests with frantic squeals, but these are stopped with a nip that crunches its skull, and the owl is away with it to the old tower, where the hungry children are calling, with weird, impatient hisses, for something to eat.
The owl does not hunt the fields and hedgerows only. It goes to all places where rats or mice may be, reconnoitres farmyards, barns and dwelling houses and boldly enters open windows. Sometimes it hovers in the air, like a kestrel, scanning the ground below. And though its regular hunting hours are from dusk till dawn, it has been seen at work as late as nine or ten on a bright summer morning. But the vulgar boys of bird society are fond of mobbing it when it appears abroad by day, and it dislikes publicity.
The barn owl lays its eggs in the places which it inhabits. There is usually a thick bed of pellets on the floor, and it considers no other nest needful. The eggs are said to be laid in pairs. There may be two, four, or six, of different eggs, in the nest, and perhaps a young one, or two, at the same time. Eggs are found from April, or even March, till June or July, and there is, sometimes at any rate, a second brood as late as November or December. This owl does not hoot, but screeches. A weird and ghostly voice it is, from which, according to Ovid, the bird has its Latin name, Strix (pronounced "Streex," probably, at that time).
Est illis strigibus nomen, sed nominis hujus.
Causa, quod horrenda stridere nocte silent.
It is a sound which, coming suddenly out of the darkness, might well start fears and forebodings in the dark and guilty mind of untutored man, which would not be dispelled by a nearer view of the strange object from which they proceeded. White, ghostly, upright, spindle-shaped and biggest at the top, where two great orbs flare, like fiery bull's-eyes, from the centres of two round white targets, it stands solemn and speechless; you approach nearer and it falls into fearsome pantomimic attitudes and grimaces, like a clown trying to frighten a child. And now a new horror has been added to the barn owl. The numerous letters which appeared in The Times and were summarised, with comments, by Sir T. Digby Pigott, C.B., in The Contemporary Review of July 1908, leave no reasonable room for doubt that this bird sometimes becomes brightly luminous, and is the will-o'-the-wisp for believing in which we are deriding our forefathers. All things considered, I cannot withhold my sympathy and some respect for the superstition of aged housekeepers, Romans and Indians. For that of gamekeepers and farmers I have neither. All our new schemes of "Nature study" will surely deserve the reproach of futility if, in the next generation, every farmhouse in England has not its own Owl Tower for the encouragement of this friend of man.