Knock knock! Who’s there? Owls. Owls who? Why yes, owls do hoo. And you’re welcome for the terrible owl dad joke. What does it mean if you do hear a hoo, though? Or if you see who’s doing the hooing? Despite the fact that Hedwig in the Harry Potter movies is incredibly cute, owls throughout history have been seen as being more ominous than adorable.

According to Redlands Daily Facts, the ancient Egyptians associated the owl with mourning and death, perhaps due to its eerie call. In the “Book of the Dead,” the owl was said to be one of the last witnesses to the soul’s passing from this life into the next. Native Americans, as well, saw the owl as a messenger from the spirit world, and the message they often brought was that of death. Pellets Inc. speaks of a Navajo legend that hearing an owl calling your name means that you are marked for death, and a bestselling novel, Margaret Craven’s 1967, “I Heard the Owl Call My Name” (via Biblio), indicates that the First Nations people of British Columbia may also have shared this belief.

Owls aren't always harbingers of doom

Despite being nocturnal animals, owls have their not-so-dark side. In addition to their association with death, they’re also seen as symbolizing wisdom, which is kind of ironic in that several studies (including one performed by the UCLA Department of Psychology, available via eScholarship) indicate they’re not terribly bright. The whole “wise old owl” trope actually comes from the ancient Greeks — owls were associated with the goddess Athena (via Redlands Daily Facts) and therefore took on some of her second-hand wisdom despite not having too much of their own.

With the Greeks, this link to a goddess also meant that owls were seen as lucky, with soldiers convinced that a sighting of Athena’s messenger would bring them luck in battle. In Mongolia and Japan, owls are also seen as lucky, and in the latter country you can even visit an owl cafe.  Pellets Inc. points out that white owls in particular are often interpreted as bringing good fortune, as legends tell of white owls saving people from natural disasters. As to why white owls are seen as good omens, this may be due to their comparative rarity in southern climates, with snowy owls seldom being seen south of Michigan. Symbolism aside, though, owls actually do bring luck in the form of pest control. They keep down the rodent population and also eat insects, so if you do hear a hoo, don’t be afraid. Instead, you can rest assured that “owl” is well.

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