Another Seafaring Owl

Screenshot 2013-12-22 10.50.14

One of the earliest nature periodicals published expressly for use in the schools,¬†Birds: Illustrated by Color Photography¬†had a two-year run at the end of the nineteenth century. The promised photographs are indeed colorful — but they are all of stuffed birds, most of them in the collections of friends of the magazine’s Chicago publisher, W.E. Watt.

Each of the images is accompanied by two pages of text, one obviously addressed to the young reader:

What do you think of this bird with his round, puffy head? You of course know it is an Owl. I want you to know him as the Snowy Owl.

The other text, more densely printed and in smaller type, is intended for the teacher, and usually comprises a plumage description, a note about distribution, an account of the bird’s food habits, and, more interestingly, the odd (and always unattributed, alas) anecdote:

The large round eyes of this owl are very beautiful. Even by daylight they are remarkable for their gem-like sheen, but in the evening they are even more attractive, glowing like balls of living fire. From sheer fatigue these birds often seek a temporary resting place on passing ships. A solitary owl, after a long journey, settled on the rigging of a ship one night. A sailor who was ordered aloft, terrified by the two glowing eyes that suddenly opened upon his own, descended hurriedly to the deck, declaring to the crew that he had seen “Davy Jones a-sitting up there on the main yard.”

Watt’s apparent source for this story (and for much of his Snowy Owl text in general) paraliptically explains the allusion:

It is perhaps unnecessary to state that “Davy Jones” is the sailors’ name for the evil spirit.

I wonder how many teachers repeated the story to their young charges: nightmare stuff, it seems to me.