Back to All Events

Owls in Myth and Culture – a Global Perspective

  • National Wildlife Federation Building 11100 Wildlife Center Drive Reston, VA, 20190 United States (map)

David H. Johnson, Director – Global Owl Project.


David Johnson with an Armful of Owls

David Johnson with an Armful of Owls

Every society on earth has myths and legends about owls. What people believe about owls makes a difference in how they protect and conserve owls.  So, what do people really believe?  We interviewed about 6,000 people in 30 countries, using a 4-page interview form translated into 17 languages.  The answers gave remarkable and wildly varied insights about the current ecological knowledge and cultural perspectives about owls.  For several countries, we also examined the archeological, anthropological, and natural history data as well, to gain richer insights into the longer-term aspects of owls in those regions. We were able to document important changes in cultural beliefs in some countries, while there were no changes in others.  Owls are viewed as very dangerous spirits who can take your soul (causing death) in Mali, while they are viewed as the Creator Being (created the earth) in north-central Australia.  During our interviews, we uncovered substantial illegal trade in owl eggs and live owls in several countries.  In this presentation David Johnson will describe the methods, cultural insights, and powerful results of our findings.  Attendees will find that this is a ‘deep dive’ into the cultural beliefs about owls. 

Originally a farmboy from Minnesota, David has worked in the natural resources field for 40 years. He began working internationally on owls in 2001. When camping at age 11, an Eastern Screech Owl landed on David’s pup tent. David was inside and the owl was outside, mere inches from each other. The owl called for 20 minutes, its shadow ‘vibrating’ in the moonlight with every call. Owls have been constant companions and friends ever since. David says: he didn’t pick owls, they picked him.

The Global Owl Project (GLOW) is a non-profit consortium of some 450 researchers, museum curators, MS & PhD students, and passionate volunteers working in 65 countries on the science and conservation of owls.  The 7 main tasks of the GLOW effort: 1) survey techniques for owls of the world, 2) DNA samples and phylogeny, 3) recordings of vocalizations, 4) morphology, new species, and the scientific literature, 5) distribution maps for the species, 6) Owls in myth and culture, and 7) dissemination of products and materials. 

Earlier Event: December 21
Occoquan Bay NWR
Later Event: January 11