Why is this interesting? - The Owl Edition

On vision, vulnerability, and blind spots

Praveen Fernandes (PF) is my brother-in-law and a previous WITI contributor (the very excellent Stamps Edition). His bio is far longer than I could list here, but briefly, he’s a lawyer, advocate, former Obama administration appointee, and art lover. - Noah (NRB)

Praveen here. In the winter of 2014, snowy owls, which normally inhabit the arctic tundra, were spotted in a number of major East Coast cities. The theory is that these owls were driven south because climate change had disrupted their usual food sources. One displaced owl in particular captivated our nation’s capital city, perching upon a ledge near The Washington Post headquarters. It was massive, majestic, and frequently Instagrammed. When it wasn’t being a social media darling, it presumably found plentiful urban rodents to keep itself fed.

Until it was hit by a city bus.

Why is this interesting?

It was surprising to many that an owl could be hit by a large and slow-moving vehicle, as owls are known for their sharp vision. But it’s a specific type of visual acuity. As Ellen Paul, Executive Director of the Washington Ornithological Council explained to The Washington Post, owls are raptors (as are falcons, hawks, eagles, etc), and raptors have excellent forward vision, but poor peripheral vision:

It’s got to be very accurate . . . It’s going to swoop down and pick up an animal that may be moving. It has to be able to see and focus and lock on to the animal. And it’s not going to notice . . . what’s coming at it from the side.

And this, as I remembered from a college evolutionary biology course, makes sense. Eye placement and vision explains a lot about where an animal exists within a food chain.  According to the Museum of Osteology:

Eyes that face forward on a skull suggest a predator. Forward facing eyes allow for binocular or stereoscopic vision, which allows an animal to see and judge depth. Predators need this depth perception to track and pursue prey . . . . [E]yes that are located on the side of its head would suggest a prey animal. Side eye placement allows for greater peripheral or side vision. This allows the animal to see predators approaching from the side as well as from behind. This vision is very important for protecting an animal when it is grazing or feeding. 

Think of an owl versus a rabbit. The latter has eyes on the sides of its head, with a broad range of peripheral vision, as well as ears that can move and rotate to capture the sounds of approaching predators; but it doesn’t have the long-distance, sharp, focused vision of an owl. And it’s not just eye placement within a skull, but also the density of eye cells, and retinal rod placement within owl eyes that seem to provide extremely detailed forward vision. The trade-off is poor peripheral vision.  In short, this owl was not built to worry about risks from the side, even slow-moving risks, as there is a very limited bus schedule in the arctic tundra. Raptor eyesight was designed for seizing small and fast prey, not for avoiding harm.

The discussion above describes evolutionary, structural differences in animals, which occur over many generations of genetic selection and shaping. But my mind strayed from science---in part because I was quickly out of my depth---and I began to think about behavioral adaptations and humans. Not the evolutionary changes that happen over generations, but rather the behavior of individual organisms in reaction to their individual environments.

I find unexceptional the claim that our sense of vulnerability shapes the way we move in the world, and affects the amount of time and energy we spend monitoring threats. Extending this logic, focus can be considered a form of luxury, a luxury afforded to those whose survival doesn’t depend upon monitoring the periphery. Regardless of where one falls within a metaphoric food chain, each one’s field of vision comes with its limitations. And when one’s setting changes dramatically, those limitations can become apparent. (PF)

Book of the Day

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. As difficult as this book is to describe, it’s even more difficult to forget. It’s a first novel by a writer who works primarily as a poet, and the prose has the compression of image and intensity of feeling that I associate with poetry. Vuong structures the book as a letter from a Vietnamese-American son who is a writer to a mother who cannot read. The words serve as a meditation on the limitations of words. The book explores the distances immigrants travel physically and symbolically, but it’s also about so many other things. It is painful and unsparing, and full of so much beauty. As Justin Torres said in his New York Times review:

Nowadays the word “sentimental” is impossible to detach from its pejorative sense, but the original, philosophical sense of the word refers to thought that is either colored by, or proceeds from, feeling . . .  [T]he book is brilliant in the way it pays attention not to what our thoughts make us feel, but to what our feelings make us think. To what kind of truths does feeling lead?


Quick Links

  • A piece in The New York Times about the literature that might be inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic (PF)

  • A collaborative art piece called “Phone Call,” conceived by Ginevra Shay and supported by the Transformer Gallery, in which participants sign up to be read to, and to interact with, poets and artists. Think John Giorno’s “Dial-a-Poem” or Yoko Ono’s “Telephone Piece,” but newly relevant and for our moment (PF)

  • Jason Farago in The New York Times on visual art and artists in the midst of a plague, and on what may emerge after (PF

  • Think a novel about twins and grammar couldn’t possibly be fascinating? Cathleen Schine’s The Grammarians proves you wrong. But don’t take my word for it, as Lauren Leibowitz explains it far better in her New Yorker review (PF)

  • As this Washington Post piece describes, the “coronavirus pandemic has highlighted yet another Faultline in America’s racial and economic divisions---those who can do their jobs from home and those who can’t” (PF)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Praveen (PF)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).