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Abiquiu: The Hoot of the Owl

Updated: Apr 29, 2023

Sitting outside on our lakeside portal, overlooking #Abiquiu Lake and the million-year-old red cliffs, it feels fitting that an owl silently flies by above me. No doubt, the owl was tracking prey, in search of food. Fitting, because if you didn’t know, Abiquiu (pronounced A-bhi-kyoo, as in A as in Apple, Bi and in Big, and Quiu pronounced like the letter Q) gets its name from the Tewa Puebloan words “pay sha boo-oo”, meaning "timber-end town”, and “abechin”, meaning “the hoot of an owl”.

#Owls hoot. They also yelp whistle, bark, screech, and snap their beaks – they have a distinctive vocabulary. But the “hoot of an owl”, as the name Abiquiu references, is one of the most recognizable owl sounds.

I had never seen an owl in daylight before today. Most owl species are nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night. This fly-by owl is clearly diurnal, that is, active during the daytime. I’m guessing it was a Short-eared owl – scientific name being Asio flammeus. These owls travel south for the winter and New Mexico is one of their wintering homes. They fly low to hunt and can be seen flying over open plains. And, I guess, they can also be seen flying low over #TheGrandHacienda bed and breakfast where I’m sitting this morning.

Some fun, or at least interesting, facts about owls:

· Owls can rotate their necks 270 degrees.

· Their eyes are immobile.

· They have asymmetrical ears – located on different heights on its head.

· Owls feathers have adapted for silent flight.

· Owls are zygodactule – they have two forward-facing toes and two backward-facing toes.

· A group of owls is called a ‘parliament’.

· Owls hunt other owls.

There are 13 species of owls who call New Mexico home; some call New Mexico their permanent home and some are migratory and only live here for a portion of the year. As we already know, New Mexico is a wonderful winter home for the owls and for people! Owls that live in New Mexico include the Northern Saw-whet Owl, Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Flammulated Owl, Whiskered Screech-owl, Western Screech-owls, Northern Pygmy Owl, Elf Owl, Burrowing Owl, Mexican Spotted Owl, and the Boreal Owl.

Owls get a bad rap - like black cats, broken mirrors and spilled salt. Even though things actually started out good for the owl.

In Ancient Greek mythology, the owl was the symbol for #Athena, the goddess of wisdom and strategy. The owl sat on Athena’s blind side, so she could see the ‘whole truth’. The owl was also the guardian of the Acropolis. This theme continues in Aesop’s Fables. It was believed that owls possessed an ‘inner light’ that gave them great night vision. The owl was a protector and accompanied Greek armies into war.

But in early Roman times, owls were thought to be messengers of witches, and signals of death and evil. Witches turned into owls, and would suck the blood out of babies. Not good. To hear “the hoot of an owl” back in early Roman times meant evil and death were imminent. Legend has it that the owl hoot was heard before the deaths of Julius Caesar and Augustus. If you dreamt about an owl, it meant you would probably be robbed, or shipwrecked, or both.

In English folklore, owls were also associated with death, and villagers would nail owls to barn doors to ward off evil or to keep the evil spirit from carrying off their children.

Fast forward through time. Many Native American puebloan traditions held a symbolic meaning for the owl, and they can be seen in ancient petroglyphs carved into rocks. Many tribes believed owls were s symbol of death. Others felt the owl served to protect the tribe from water monsters. The Navajo believed the owl was a predictor of the future. The Inuit believed the Short-eared owl was once a young girl who was transformed into an owl with a very long beak. But the owl became frightened, flew into the side of a building, and flattened its face and beak. Other tribes see the owl as a guardian of the dead and underground things, representing the souls of deceased tribal members. A simple owl feather was often used to protect babies, family and homes from evil spirits.

Today, for many, owls still hold a spiritual representation of ancient wisdom and knowledge – and the symbolism of death infers new beginnings with evolved understanding.

In reality, owls want nothing to do with our human population, even though they are a bird that features prominently in the myths and legends from a variety of cultures. The owl tends to fascinate birders and non-birders alike, capture our attention and interest, build our imagination, and even encourage superstitions.

And this is why we love to hear 'the hoot of the owl' here in Abiquiu.

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The Grand Hacienda is a luxury bed and breakfast located on Abiquiu Lake, outside the village of Abiquiu, about 53 miles north of Santa Fe.

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