Wise about owls

My good intentions about visiting Selborne monthly, and revisiting Gilbert White’s observations and reflections has been thwarted by events in the parish- a combination of the routine and the unexpected. I did, however manage a visit in July, after a 3 month absence, and consolidated my familiarity with the famous parish by taking another 10 mile walk; this time beginning by heading north past the church along the Hanger Way towards the site of the Selborne priory. The constant changes of vegetation and soil were more apparent than ever and re-inforced what a perfect laboratory the parish was for observing and categorising the variety of nature. Firmly puncturing the myth that tourism thrives on; that abundance and mystery is always an aeroplane’s flight away!

Many of White’s entries for July deal with the areas of nature that either fail to draw my interest or just draw attention to my ignorance- the difference between the common stickleback and the ten spined stickleback, and the commonest types of wild flowers for example. Although his account of the habits and behaviour of the white owl( a name which helps much more with identification than does the contemporary ‘ barn owl’) revealed how, like Ray before him, his speculations about the advantages of distinct form and their reason for being, accurately anticipated the conclusions of modern ornithology. Observing the incredible softness of all the owl feathers he found, he suggested that they were to help with silent flight!

One of the most striking comments that he made was that the large head of the owl was a result of the large eyes they needed to hunt effectively at night. One of the most embarassing notions of the first scientists to get involved in the quest to show the superiority of caucasians over the other ‘races’, was that their tribe had bigger craniums because of larger brains and their correspondingly greater intelligence. The topic became a battle field, with those who didn’t like the politics often harnessed to the theory, insisting that the original researchers either invented, or unconsciously massaged the measurements, to make the ‘facts’ fit the theory. The latest findings are that northern Europeans do indeed have bigger craniums, but not due to their greater intelligence, but the lack of light in their environment, which led to the evolution of larger eyes. White’s theory about owls seems to have been correct for humans! Natural theology pre-empting natural selection yet again.

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