Gorgeous 19th-Century Illustrations of Owls and Ospreys
The science of the familiar “owl-face” and the art of its varied permutations.
By Maria Popova
In his glorious meditation on science and spirituality, Alan Lightman writes beautifully of finding transcendent experiences in our quotidian existence — experiences like his life-altering half-second encounter with two baby ospreys. Indeed, birds of prey like ospreys, owls, hawks, eagles, and falcons have long possessed the human imagination. A fixture of fables and fairy tales — in other words, a symbolic centerpiece of our civilizational proclivity for thinking with animals — they have continued to enchant storytellers and scientists alike.
Nowhere does the transcendent magnificence of this avian family come more fully alive than in the fourth volume the the six-volume masterwork The Royal Natural History (public library | public domain) by English naturalist, geologist, and writer Richard Lydekker, originally published in 1893.
The fifth chapter of the volume explores owls and ospreys, with engravings at once scientifically scrupulous and wonderfully expressive, emanating a warm celebration of the splendid biodiversity of our world.
The beautiful art, of course, is but a complement to the scintillating science:
[The] characteristic “owl-face” is due, firstly, to the forward direction of the eyes; and, secondly, to a circular disc of radiating feathers, more or less distinctly developed round each eye, and which may be bounded by a ruff of closely-set feathers. In common with many diurnal birds of prey, the owls have a short, stout beak, of which the upper ridge is strongly curved, and the tip deflected in a perpendicular direction ; at its base is a cere, usually covered with stiff bristles concealing the nostrils. The feet are furnished with strong, curved, and sharp claws, and have the fourth toe reversible.
Complement Lydekker’s The Royal Natural History with this showcase of some of the rarest and most beautiful natural history illustrations of the past 500 years.
Published May 29, 2015