We all know what an owl is, but sometimes living in modern society we forget how very bizarre and large animals can be, and how strange it must have been to encounter them in ancient history without context. This owl is a great example of how the legendary harpy may have come to be, as somebody out for a walk stumbled upon what appears to be a great horned owl in extreme defensive posturing. They didn’t know what they were seeing as a disturbingly human-like face with a scraggly beard emerged from a large semi-circle of feathers arched across the ground to display the creature’s largest possible size. Even knowing what this is does not detract from the surprise of just how effective the coloration patterns are as a disguise, leaving viewers thinking “gosh, that does look like a harpy when you see it in action”.
The harpy of greek mythology is said to have the face and sometimes upper body of a human but with the body of a large bird. Sometimes they were described as beautiful young women but other myths describe them as very old hags, which could be accounted for by different types of owls. A great horned owl can look deceptively small when camouflaged in a tree resting, however their wingspan can be as large as five feet when fully spread which is fully intimidating when feathers are fluffed in defensive posturing. That means an average sized adult human stumbling across one of these on the ground would find a creature roughly waist-high and twice as wide with a human face emerging from the feathery mass making angry warning noises - it’s no wonder early human explorers were confused!
The deceptively large size of some owls is also sometimes blamed for the urban legend of mothman, as one in flight with legs extended could easily resemble a human form under less than ideal observational conditions, such as night and the swiftness of the birds.