Patoo


A couple of my readers asked me about an entry in my first “Sunday Stumble”… “Why would anyone stone owls?”  Good question.

I will attempt to explain – although if anyone has more information or insights to contribute, please feel free.  I am no expert, but I do believe the stoning of owls in Jamaica is based on superstition.  They are a symbol of death – or they bring death.  An omen, rather than a symbol, actually.

The name “Patoo” originates from the Twi word “patu.”  Twi being Ghana‘s principal native language.  There is a bit of confusion with another Jamaican bird, the Potoo, which is by no means an owl, but a “goatsucker” (a nightjar), an extraordinary bird I will have to tell you more about another time.

Barn Owl
This is a Patoo.

And for my competitors on “Words With Friends,” Patoo is not accepted as a word…

There are two types of owls in Jamaica: the Barn Owl (also often called the Screech Owl or Scritch Owl), and the Jamaican Owl – somewhat smaller and very brown, with charming ear tufts.  I understand that the Barn Owl is more feared, and more often stoned.  Of course, we have similar Barn Owls across several continents – but our Jamaican one seems especially pallid, ghostly white (and, to me anyway, quite beautiful, with his huge face and black eyes and silent white wings).  In many parts of the Eastern Caribbean he is called a Jumbie Bird – or Spirit Bird.  So he is very much associated with ghosts (duppies in Jamaican parlance).

The fear of owls seems to have been brought to Jamaica by African slaves, and generally all over Africa owls are regarded as harbingers of bad luck, disease, death.  In Zimbabwe, I understand, many believe that if one lands on your roof, there will be a death in the family.  Just as in Jamaica today, they are also stoned and chased away in some communities.  No one wants them near their house.

In several other cultures, owls are revered and respected, rather than feared.  Most Native American tribes find them powerful creatures and the Tlingit tribe used to go into battle hooting like owls.  In European traditions, owls are often considered wise.  One of my childhood books (whose main character was a motherly grey rabbit dressed in women’s clothes, an apron and such) included Wise Owl – who was only marginally scary because he was pretty much a recluse, and rather mysterious.  In the end, though, he turned out to be a very useful member of the quaint little woodland society in the book, and of course quite fearless.  I always associated owls with wisdom (often holding a book in their claw).  I believe this all derives from the Greek myth of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who actually shape-shifted back and forth from human to owl.

Owl of Athena coin
A reproduction of the ancient Owl of Athena coin (used in ancient Greece from 430 - 99 B.C.)

And yet Will Shakespeare himself regarded and described the owl as a bringer of doom, just as Jamaicans do.  Many Arab traditions also fear the owl, for the same reasons.  In Mayan mythology, the messengers of the Death Gods are owls.

Nevertheless, when I hear the Barn Owl’s wings creaking steadily over our house in the evenings, and his hissing screech, I feel in a way reassured.  To me it is far from fearful, it is comforting.

And I wish him happy hunting.

PS  Did you know the word for the fear of owls is oclophobia?  Well, among several other phobias which I do not wish to discuss here, it seems there are Jamaican oclophobes.  Like the fear of lizards (herpetaphobia) it is one that we should really try our best to overcome.  After all, owls are very useful creatures; they eat the rats that are threatening to overwhelm us here in the city – oh, and they eat the much-feared lizards, too.  What’s not to love.

Jamaican Owl, an endemic species
Also called a Patoo, this is the lovely little Jamaican Owl, trying to look fierce.

21 thoughts on “Patoo

    1. Oh yes – some people do keep them as pets (as in Harry Potter!) They have a serious “image problem” but they are extraordinary animals, and they do play an important role in our eco-systems. Traditionally though, as I mentioned, they have not always been symbols of death… I’m glad you think a little more kindly of them now, Rochelle! 🙂

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  1. I found your article quite accurate and interactive. Your passion and understanding of the Jamaican culture and cultures in general exuded from each line. Quite refreshing I must add. Thank you and keep up the great work.

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    1. I know… It’s quite illogical but somehow they are comforting (although not, in this case, for the owls!) I still cling to (and remind myself of) my grandmother’s vast range of English superstitions… Don’t put shoes on the table, don’t bring bird feathers into the house, don’t open an umbrella indoors, don’t wear green – it’s the fairies’ color, etc. Mostly “don’t”s!

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    1. No – please don’t! I think they are wonderful and fascinating birds. Even when our local Patoo sits in a mango tree and stares down at us at nights, not even the slightest shiver goes down my spine!! There’s a video on my blog (if you scroll through) about Snowy Owls, from the Cornell University bird lab which is wonderful. Your mother might like that!

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  2. Thanks for writing about this, Emma. When I saw NEPA’s press release I sent them a note (and photos) reminding them to mention the Potoo, which is perhaps even more susceptible to abuse if discovered sitting, as it does, so still during the day. I have an article in my head, Of Patoos and Potoos, but it has not yet been born! Have just come in from my nightly visitation by Petra the Potoo…

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    1. I didn’t know the Potoo was also abused in this way – how sad, they are incredible creatures. There is a lovely little video link at the end of my blog post, of a Richard Attenborough trip downriver in Brazil, where he meets a Potoo doing his “I’m not here” thing. Wonderful. We had a Potoo sitting on the USAID sign on our Embassy compound in Liguanea one day – all day, right in front of the entrance, with people walking in and out a few inches away from him. The Americans were amazed by him – I had to look him up and send them an email explaining what he was! About the time we normally go home, he decided to leave too!

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    1. Yes, and it’s obviously an African import. But when I looked into it, some traditions agreed, and others didn’t. There seem to be mixed feelings about owls…

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