OWL. KJV trs. five different Heb. words “owl,” and it is found sixteen times. In RSV “owl” appears only seven times; all but one are common to KJV, but sometimes differently qualified: e.g., Deuteronomy 14:16, “the little owl and the great owl” (KJV, RSV); but Isaiah 34:15 “There shall the owl (RSV) great owl (KJV) nest.” The most important variation is that Heb. (בַּ֣ת יַּעֲנָ֔ה) is tr. “owl” (KJV), but “ostrich” (ASV, RSV). Some attempt was made by J. G. Wood, Bible Animals (1869) to identify the various owls and he had already come to this conclusion about ostrich while regarding the other KJV tr. as generally correct. The only attempt at scientific analysis of this group seems to be by G. R. Driver in “Birds in the OT; I Birds in Law” PEQ (1955) 5-20. He identifies no less than eight species in the lists of unclean food in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These are tabulated as follows:

These identifications are reasoned by Driver at some length from philology and natural history, but are only tentative. There are some minor inaccuracies in the biological data; a more important objection to this list is that these owls are largely nocturnal birds, some migratory or rare, and it is most doubtful whether they would be known well enough to have individual names in Pal., far less in the desert, where the lists were proclaimed. These birds are discussed in more detail under their KJV and ASV names. The following brief note concerns the species of owls known in Pal. today. The eagle owl, in a number of races, is the world’s largest species and may be nearly twenty-eight inches long. It ranges through much of Europe and Asia, including Pal., where a beautiful sandy-colored desert race is found, as well as a woodland form. This species is resident. The short-eared owl, more diurnal than most kinds, passes through on migration. The long-eared owl lives in forests and goes to Pal. only for the winter. The tawny or wood owl is some fifteen inches long; it has a wide distribution, in many races, and lives in woods, feeding mostly on rodents. The fishing owl is prob. absent from Pal. itself but is well known from the Nile valley and Iraq; it feeds like the osprey, snatching fish from near the surface of the water. The screech or barn owl is the palest of all, with areas of white or cream plumage; through its wide range it normally is associated with farms and buildings, and easily recognized by its long drawn screech in flight and strange snoring and hissing noises at the nest. The little owl is now the commonest kind and breeds in most regions other than the desert; it often is seen perching near the roadside by day and is more useful than harmful to man. The scops owl is even smaller, only seven and one half inches long; it is a summer visitor to Pal. and well-known from its monotonous single whistle note, though seldom seen.


For general list see Bird Migration.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The name of every nocturnal bird of prey of the Natural Order Striges. These birds range from the great horned owl of 2 feet in length, through many subdivisions to the little screech-owl of 5 inches. All are characterized by very large heads, many have ear tufts, all have large eyes surrounded by a disk of tiny, stiff, radiating feathers. The remainder of the plumage has no aftershaft. So these birds make the softest flight of any creature traveling on wing. A volume could be written on the eye of the owl, perhaps its most wonderful feature being in the power of the bird to enlarge the iris if it wishes more distinct vision. There is material for another on the prominent and peculiar auditory parts. With almost all owls the feet are so arranged that two toes can be turned forward and two back, thus reinforcing the grip of the bird by an extra toe and giving it unusual strength of foot. All are night-hunters, taking prey to be found at that time, of size according to the strength. The owl was very numerous in the caves, ruined temples and cities, and even in the fertile valleys of Palestine. It is given place in the Bible because it was considered unfit for food and because people dreaded the cries of every branch of the numerous family. It appeared often, as most birds, in the early versions of the Bible; later translators seem to feel that it was used in several places where the ostrich really was intended (see Ostrich). It would appear to a natural historian that the right bird could be selected by the location, where the text is confusing. The ostrich had a voice that was even more terrifying, when raised in the night, than that of the owl. But it was a bird of the desert, of wide range and traveled only by day. This would confine its habitat to the desert and the greenery where it joined fertile land, but would not bring it in very close touch with civilization. The owl is a bird of ruins, that lay mostly in the heart of rich farming lands, where prosperous cities had been built and then destroyed by enemies. Near these locations the ostrich would be pursued for its plumage, and its nesting conditions did not prevail. The location was strictly the owl’s chosen haunt, and it had the voice to fit all the requirements of the text. In the lists of abominations, the original Hebrew yanshuph, derived from a root meaning twilight, is translated "great owl" (see Le 11:17 and De 14:16). It is probable that this was a bird about 2 ft. in length, called the eagle-owl. In the same lists the word koc (nuktikorax) refers to ruins, and the bird indicated is specified as the "little owl," that is, smaller than the great owl--about the size of our barn owl. This bird is referred to as the "mother of ruins," and the translations that place it in deserted temples and cities are beyond all doubt correct. Qippoz (echinos) occurs once (Isa 34:15), and is translated "great owl" in former versions; lately (in the American Standard Revised Version) it is changed to "dart-snake" (the English Revised Version "arrowsnake"). In this same description lilith (onokentauros), "a specter of night," was formerly screech-owl, now it reads "night monster," which is more confusing and less suggestive. The owls in the lists of abominations (Le 11:17,18; De 14:16) are the little owl, the great owl and the horned owl. The only other owl of all those that produced such impressions of desolation in the Books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job, and Micah is referred to in Ps 102:6:

"I am like a pelican of the wilderness;

I am become as an owl of the waste places."

Here it would appear that the bird habitual to the wilderness and the waste places, that certainly would be desert, would be the ostrich--while in any quotation referring to ruins, the owl would be the bird indicated by natural conditions.

Gene Stratton-Porter

See also

  • Birds