After the article on the praying mantis appeared, I received a letter from Lenora Stackhouse, of Williamsport, who wrote that the article brought back memories of when she was a child, living on a farm near Roaring Branch.
Lenora recalled finding a chrysalis and putting it in a jar, with holes punched in the lid. She forgot about the jar and by the time she accidentally found it, the mantises had hatched but died.
Lenora wrote that she had felt like a murderer. Then, one day last summer she was outside painting when an adult praying mantis landed on the rim of the paint can. Being afraid that the mantis would fall into the paint can, she cautiously tried to pick up the insect; however, its legs were stuck to the can.
After some time passed, she was able to remove the mantis from the can and cleaned some paint off its legs. Lenora then released the mantis, only to have it cling to the side of the newly painted house. Again the insect was caught, paint removed and released. The bright green mantis last was seen on a neighbor's shrub.
Through the years, I have received many interesting letters and pictures from readers. Scott and Melissa Crandell, of Mifflinburg, have been sending me pictures of screech owls visiting the nesting boxes that he has erected. Last fall, Scott sent me a picture of a gray-phase screech owl and then, in January, he sent pictures of what appeared to be two red-phase screech owls.
In the eastern United States, the screech owl is polychromatic (having three color phases), with the red and gray phase the most predominate. The third color is an intermediate brown that makes up a very small percentage of the population.
Here, in northern Pennsylvania, the gray phase is the most common.
The screech owl, which is probably the most common owl in North America, lives in a variety of habitat, even nesting in residential areas. Through the years, we have had a few reports of nests in our neighborhood.
The screech owl's name comes from its call, which is not a screech but a soft, mournful whinny.
Another owl that received its name from a call is our smallest owl, the saw-whet owl. This owl's call is said to closely resemble the sound of a man either filing (whetting) or sharpening a large mill saw.
Man's first acquaintance with owls began with the planting of crops, which attracted rodents; in turn, the rodents attracted owls, drawing the birds closer to man. This closeness was the beginning of man's fascination with the unusual night-flying bird.
Early man believed that anything associated with the darkness was evil and had supernatural powers; hence, the owl's bad reputation.
Long before the Greek civilization, an owl was thought to be a bird with potent powers. Lilith, the Sumerian goddess of the underworld, was imagined to be a screech owl and was represented on an ancient plaque as having wings, talons and flanked by two owls. In her hands, she held a measuring rope, which was the symbol of judgment.
Later, the Greeks, who believed that the owl was wise, associated the owl with Athena, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge.
The Romans viewed the goddess Minerva and the owl as messengers of death and evil. An owl that flew over a town or housetop was feared because this usually meant death.
In Shakespeare, Macbeth cries, "I have not done the deed. Didn't thou not hear a noise and his lady say 'It was the owl that shriek'd (sic) the fatal bellman.' "
In 1934, W.J. Brown wrote the following comment on the death of an old man: "It weren't no more nor I expected. I come past his house one night and there were a screech owl on his roost screeching something horrible. I always recon to take note of them things."
Although there are many beliefs about the owl, the truth is that the bird is nothing more than a part of nature's grand plan, but interesting nonetheless.
"A wise old owl sat on an oak,
The more he saw the less he spoke;
The less he spoke the more he heard;
Why aren't we like that wise old bird?"
- Edward Hersey Richards
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.