thomas m wilson

The Owl of Minerva Spreads its Wings at Sunset

July 2nd, 2008

In the old chaplain’s house along the front terrace of Fremantle Prison, an old Australian convict site, there is a wide Victorian balcony. As I walked through the front door of this building this morning I looked up at the jarrah rafters on the underside of the balcony and a pair of wide, dark brown eyes looked down into my own. In all his compact, downy splendour sat a Southern Boobook (Ninox novaeseelandiae ocellata). I was happy to see the little visitant from a wilder Australia.

Owls have been on earth since the time of the dinosaurs, proving that their model of body is a pretty good one in the game of evolutionary change. Owls are far-sighted, and are unable to see anything clearly within a few inches of their eyes. Their far vision, particularly in low light, is exceptionally good. Serrated edges on the leading edge of the owl’s flight feathers muffle the owl’s wingbeats, allowing its flight to be practically silent.

The property manager of Fremantle Prison told me that he had come upon an owl inside the prison grounds one night when looking for pigeons. The owl had been two metres above his head sitting on a fence. When the pigeons took off they made a loud noise, but when the owl took flight it was absolutely silent.

The Owl of Minerva was a symbol of wisdom for the Romans. The German philosopher Hegel once commented that the Owl of Minerva only gets going and spreads its wings just as the historical day is coming to a close. Let’s hope he wasn’t right in the context of our historical transition to an environmentally sustainable Australia. May the Owl of Minerva bring his wisdom into our lives before the close of day.

And I hope the little fellow at Number Eight sticks around as well.