Know It All

Photograph by Charl Durand


words by willow defebaugh

In the era of information overload, what can we learn from owls about filtering knowledge in favor of wisdom?

“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.”

E.O. Wilson

In Greek mythology, Athena is often depicted with an owl perched on her shoulder. It’s said that her feathered familiar would tell her truths about the world, aiding her in her role as the goddess of wisdom. To this day, we associate these birds with knowledge; we even refer to a group of owls as a parliament, what is meant to be a convening of intelligent minds. I wonder what words of wisdom they might whisper in our own ears, about this age in which we all know too much?


Owls belong to a group of birds called Strigiformes. The 250 species known to exist can be found all across the globe in just about every ecosystem—from the desert owl to the great horned owls that inhabit coniferous forests to the snowy owls of the arctic tundras. The smallest, the elf owl, is only about half a foot tall; by contrast, the great gray owl can grow close to three feet. Beyond their signature sharp claws and hooked beaks, all owls share a keen sense of perception.


Across the ages, owls have been believed to be prescient—able to foretell the future. While we may never be able to verify that credulous belief, we do know they have expert vision. Their sense of sight is two to three times better than humans, and while their heads may be only a fraction of the size of our own, their eyes can be as large. Perhaps stranger still, rather than spheres, their eyes are long and tube-like in shape. As such, they are unable to move their eyes in their sockets, but instead possess the ability to rotate their necks 270 degrees around and 90 up.


Owls know that there are other ways of looking at the world. If you’ve ever spotted one at night, you might have seen their eyes glowing eerily. The haunting, orange-red hue these nocturnal creatures exhibit is thanks to a phenomenon called eyeshine. An additional layer of tissue behind their retinas reflects visible light, giving them the ability to see exceptionally well in the dark—an invaluable tool, when the majority of your time is spent shrouded in shadow.


It’s not just their unusual sight that allows owls to expertly perceive their surroundings; they also have a sharp sense of hearing. Most species have asymmetrical ears able to pick up on a wide range of sounds in as fast as 3/100,000ths of a second. And then there’s the way they move through the world: thanks to having both a wide wingspan and soft feather tips over stiff ones, owls are able to soar and swoop with silent grace. This makes them expert hunters, able to surprise prey including rodents, insects, fish, and even other owls, foxes, and small deer.


Lately, I have been feeling as if we humans have developed too keen of a perception of the world—not just immediately around us, but all over. Thanks to social media and the 24-hour news cycle, we are aware of just about everything that unfolds on this planet. And while knowledge can empower and equip us with the ability to act, it can also be debilitating. It’s important we stay informed—and that we also have boundaries, so we aren’t constantly assaulted by information. I’m not sure we’re meant to know everything all the time.


Owls may be emissaries of both knowledge and wisdom, but it’s imperative that we distinguish the two. On its own, knowledge is little more than awareness: an accumulation of information. It’s only with perspective that knowledge becomes wisdom. We must be willing to step back, rise above, and see from different vantage points. Social media, the news, and even the stories we tell ourselves capture a grim picture of the world, but it’s not the whole picture. And despite our superstitions, the future can’t be seen—though we can change our outlook on it.

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