camouflage:  a shape or colouring that conceals

Most wild animals are good at camouflage. They blend in with their natural surroundings in such a way that they are not easily spotted, especially if they are stationery. For owls this ability to be camouflaged is important for two reasons: firstly to protect itself from predators, and secondly to be more successful in its own hunting of prey. Camouflage is needed for survival.

A couple of very good friends of mine went to the zoo yesterday and took me with them virtually, by thoughtfully sending me a few photographs. It was fantastic.

At first glance, I thought the first photo was of an empty cage. Since Finland is in the middle of a very deep freeze many of the animals have moved – or been moved – inside into the warm, an empty cage wasn’t necessarily an odd assumption, but somehow I knew there was something hidden, something hiding from me – and so I peered and peered until suddenly could see her, a beautiful owl. The hidden had become visible and once visible I couldn’t help but see her.

When you look at an owl the thing that usually captures your attention – or at least mine! – is their eyes. Their eyes are large and incredibly beautiful. As I wrote earlier, one way of discerning whether an owl is nocturnal or not is to look at the colour of its iris. The owls’ beautiful eyes make it more visible, so one way they camouflage themselves during the day is by keeping their eyes closed (or half closed) as if sleeping or snoozing.

Owls also limit their chances of survival by staying still. This motionlessness isn’t unique to owls of course. It is very much harder – often impossible – to spot a wild animal if it isn’t moving, any walk with our dogs will illustrate this. Unless they pick up the scent of a rabbit, fox or deer they won’t notice them –until the animal moves. Even a twitch of a rabbit’s ear might be enough if the dogs are already alert. Then the chase is on!

Owls make the best use of their natural habitat and environment to keep themselves protected. Most owls usually sit in trees with lots of leaves during the day (this is more difficult in the winter when the trees are bare of course) and the natural shading the foliage provides, helps hide them. What’s more often the owls’ feathers resemble bark which makes it even easier for them to camouflage themselves in the trees.

The second photo was even more puzzling. An owl crafted out of snow and ice set in her perfectly natural snow covered environment. Beautiful. But was it real? Was it a snowy owl or not? I think it was. Even though perfectly motionless, and looking like an owl version of a snowman, there seemed to be something alive about his – or her – eyes that suggested life. But even now I’m not sure, not absolutely sure. That’s what camouflage does – it makes us question if something is really there or not.

I have to admit I find the snowy owl a most fascinating creature. Snowy owls are white, with very dark eyes. Their colour  – or rather lack of colour – is because their feathers have no pigment, and it’s this lack of pigmentation which aids them in their natural habitat – white and grey snow-laden landscapes. In the summer time, when there’s less snow, they develop a pattern, black spots, on their feathers to camouflage themselves better. I think they are amazing!

Being well camouflaged gives animals – including humans – the possibility of observing without being observed.  In a semi-autobiographical book I read earlier this week Hidden Lives the author Margaret Forster writes

I saw her judging me. She wasn’t in the least censorious, but she noticed things and I noticed her noticing.

We don’t always want to be observed, watched or noticed. The less extroverted of us might never choose or want to be what we feel is the centre of attraction. It can be a very uncomfortable zone, and a place of great vulnerability. And at times we wear masks because we don’t wish for our thoughts or emotions to be invaded by others. It’s a form of camouflage, a way of blending into the environment in some way for protection or safety. More on that another day…

There are some fantastic photos of camouflaged owls here if you are interested.

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