by Patrick McShea
You have to know where to look to spot the owls on the front door of Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Carriage Drive entrance.
Amid the bronze relief art work on each of two massive doors, a tiny owl perches atop a flaming oil lamp, symbolically marking the building as a place of wisdom and illumination.
The association of owls with wisdom dates at least to ancient Greece, where Athena, goddess of wisdom, favored the owl among all feathered creatures. Physical features might well have influenced Athena’s judgment, for an owl’s large round head and huge forward-facing eyes endow the creature with a human-like face.
These physical features, which are adaptations for nocturnal hunting, are available for close inspection at Discovery Basecamp, where an array of owl taxidermy mounts greets visitors.
Although the eyes of the taxidermy mounts are made of glass, their size, color, and placement accurately mimics the remarkable light-gathering structures of the living birds. The feathers of each mount are real, and those creating the flat facial disc of each owl are visually different than the surrounding plumage. The shape, stiffness, and placement of these feathers makes each owls face a satellite dish for gathering sound and transmitting it to the creature’s ears.
Patrick McShea works in the Education and Visitor Experience department of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.