About a month ago, I was driving my son to the station along a fast, straight stretch near me, sadly notorious for road casualties. Lying in the lay-by opposite the junction was a brown pile of feathers, and I suspected it was a juvenile buzzard as we have so many around here. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a tawny owl, presumably sustaining a glancing blow a few hours previously: enough to kill it instantly but leave it remarkably undamaged. I picked it up and placed it in the boot of my car and examined it when I got back.
[Thankfully all my children are used to me doing such weird things so there was no comment apart from a grimace and a shrugging of Millennial shoulders…]
I find there is an odd reverence towards a newly-dead animal. This might all sound rather morbid but when it is so intact and retains its sense of character just without the essence of life, it is a privilege – as an artist – to share this time. I have seen owls flying in the countryside, and have had them on my gloved wrist at bird-of-prey displays, but you can’t really look, I mean really look at them at such times as you’re there to wonder at their beauty and mastery of the air rather than peer at their feet and try and work out how their wings fit in to their body. Such an unexpected find is a gift to be appreciated, and in any case I couldn’t leave it by the side of the road.
I took some photos of its feet and paid a lot of attention to its wings. I have a number of them in my collection (!) and their differences according to how the birds fly are astonishing. Feathers are incredible products of evolutionary pressure, and the owl’s whole body was beautifully designed for its purpose. I have known about an owl’s wings having tiny teeth around the edges so as to muffle any noise, and sure enough, there was the serrated edge of the primaries. The body feathers were so soft – again, for their sound-absorbing properties to make the owl’s passage undetectable to its prey.
The underside of the wing is surprisingly buzzard-y in its markings:
I was wanting to paint an owl in flight, as standing owls are rather closed and unremarkable in shape, but I was wondering how to convey the tawniness of the tawny owl as actually, they are quite pale underneath. However, they are definitely have more fleckles and colouration than a barn owl so I stuck with it.
And here is the finished article: