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Widespread across Middle-earth1
More than two hundred species in the family Strigidae
From Old English ule2


About this entry:

  • Updated 26 July 2022
  • This entry is complete


Birds of the night

Night-stalking hunting birds. They were evidently familiar to the Dwarves of northern Middle-earth: when Bilbo was sent to investigate a mysterious campfire on the way to Rivendell, Thorin instructed him to signal by hooting twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl. Unfortunately owls were rather less familiar to Bilbo than to the Dwarves,3 and when he was captured by the Trolls that had made the fire, he had no way to warn Thorin and company of their danger. If Bilbo had known a little more about the hooting of owls, then, the Dwarves might have escaped capture themselves, but fortunately Gandalf was able to save them from the Trolls' larder.



Owls are mentioned several times in Tolkien's tales, but always as references or metaphors, and no actual owl makes a direct appearance at any point. All we can say for sure is that they were evidently well known to characters from across Middle-earth, which implies that they were as widespread during the Third Age as they are today.


The word 'owl' (or Old English ule) is a very old one indeed. Essentially the same word for the bird occurring in Proto-Indo-European, and it appears to have originated as an imitation of the owl's hooting call. Latin had several words for 'owl', among which was ulula, which shared its origins with modern 'owl'. From that Latin word we get modern English ululate, to howl or wail (and indeed the word 'howl' itself also seems to descend from the ancient form of the word, or from a close relation).


These would be difficult instructions to follow even for those more familiar with owls than Bilbo. Barn owls do not hoot, but screech, for which reason they're sometimes known as 'screech owls'. Indeed, this is the only kind of owl likely to be found in Middle-earth that are given this name (there are other 'screech owls' in the Americas, but they would not be found east of the Great Sea during the Third Age). Thus a 'barn-owl' and a 'screech-owl' are actually the same kind of owl, a kind that does not in fact hoot.

So, Thorin's instructions were ambiguous at best, to the point where Tolkien considered revising this section of the story. These revisions did not find their way into print, but they would have had Bilbo cry like a night-hawk, then hoot twice like an owl. Bilbo would have been exactly as confused by this new set of instructions as in the original version, but Thorin's intended meaning is at least easier to discern.


About this entry:

  • Updated 26 July 2022
  • This entry is complete

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