Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine
At sharp end
John Vincent reports on the world-famous ornithologist who paid a heavy price for photographing an owl in the wild.
Their judge-like solemnity and mysterious night-time hoots have for centuries contributed to their reputation as birds of illomen. In Ancient Rome and until the Middle Ages, it was believed that witches would turn themselves into owls and suck the blood of babies, while malevolent spells were cast using owl feathers and eggs.
In Renaissance England, the hoot of an owl flying over one’s house meant someone inside was about to die, and Shakespeare contributed to the bird’s bad press with Lady Macbeth uttering the line: “It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman which gives the stern’st good-night.”
Even as recently as Victorian times, owls were killed in their hundreds, shot for feathers in hats or by farmers who believed them responsible for taking chicks.
Eric Hosking (1909-1991), the first professional bird photographer to open our eyes to the beauty of birds in the wild, ignored the old superstitions... but at a heavy price.
As the first to photograph owls in the wild, he was returning to a hide late one night in May 1937 when he was struck in the face by the female tawny owl, its claw penetrating his left eye. The resulting infection meant choosing between losing one eye or probably going blind. He chose to have the eye removed – a story which made all the national newspapers.
Anyone could be forgiven for steering clear of wildlife photography for life. Not Hosking, though, and he was quickly back in the field, bearing no ill-will towards the bird or the species. “I have always considered that the owl was only doing its duty,” he wrote later.
Now Hosking’s library, original paintings and camera collection are expected to fetch £30,000-£40,000 at Tennants on November 24. The archive includes rare bird books and presentation copies by admiring figures including Peter Scott and Sir David Attenborough.
His most famous photo is the “heraldic owl”, described by Hosking as a “one in a million pose” and which has been published all over the world. It became so well known that he commissioned a rubyeyed brooch of it for his wife Dorothy.
Hosking began his career in 1929 and he photographed more than 1,800 species over 60 years, his pictures appearing in
800 books. His technological innovations included the use of flash photography for birds and the invention of an electronic trigger-mechanism for high-speed photography of birds in flight.
Success in those early days relied on in-depth knowledge, experience and exceptionally complicated calculations. Film holders could be loaded only in complete darkness and glass negatives had to be developed later. He was the first person to use an electronic flash to record birds in flight.
Hosking, who spent thousands of hours patiently waiting in hides, won a string of accolades from photographic, ornithological and conservation bodies and was awarded an OBE in 1977.
His autobiography, An Eye for a Bird ,was both ingenious and appropriate for the pioneer who opened our eyes to the beauty of birds in the wild.
Even as recently as Victorian times, owls were killed in their hundreds.