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Homage to Karel H. Voous (1920-2002)

Bruce G. Marcot


One of the pioneers of owl research was Dr. Karel Hendrik Voous, a Dutch ornithologist and author of the seminal tome "Owls of the Northern Hemisphere."  

For a time, he and I corresponded, first about our respective owl studies, and then soon thereafter about other dimensions of our appreciation for nature and creatures of the night.

I learned through our correspondence that Karel was a wonderfully gracious, open-minded, and open-hearted individual.

At the slight risk of betraying a confidence, I would like to recount here some of his personal letters to me, for they speak of a love of the natural world that we all could do well to rekindle in ourselves.

Letter dated 13 June 1997, from Prof. K.H. Voous to Dr. Bruce Marcot:

Dear Mr. Marcot,

Unfortunately I am late in acknowledging the receipt of copies of your paper on owls in old forests of the world.  However late, I am thanking you very much!

Your treatise shows how much owls depend on old forests and it is a point to wonder whether these and perhaps originally all owls developed as forest birds.

I experience owls in dense forests as ghosts, moving silently among the ghostly vegetation and at times announce their presence by almost intimidating calls.

It still has to be shown that reforestation can bring back or help declining forest-owl populations, but let us hope it will do.

Your paper is typographically beautifully made up and it is easy to find one's way in it.  Hence, a double congratulation is well deserved.

With kind thanks and wishing you good luck with the study and the conservation of forest owls and hoping to hear from you in the near future again, 

Yours sincerely,

K.H. Voos


I of course continued our wonderful correspondence, and thereafter received this next reply, again in well-ordered, clearly legible hand script on the owl letterhead.  Here, I discovered Karel's penchant for writing poetry.

Letter dated 30 October 1997, from Prof. K.H. Voous to Dr. Bruce Marcot:

Dear Dr. Marcot,

It was a great pleasure for me to receive your letter of 17 October with  reminiscences of owl research.  Unfortunately, owing to poor health I am no longer in a position to study owls.  But I still enjoy them and read owl publications.

Your paper with Jack W. Thomas on Spotted Owls is exceptional for its prose and the introductory quotations.  I like that very much.

Equally attractive is your poem "Owls," which evokes in me the feeling of the early-night's forest and the first shadows of owls hunting in the moonlight.

I once ventured to write a poem: In Remembrance of the Japanese Ornithologist Y. Yamashirna. I am enclosing a fotocopy.

At present I am concentrating on Anatidae and on the relationship of big predators with man, including the cultural differences between various peoples and their different attitudes toward dangerous animals which may turn man from hunters to the hunted ones.

Owls remain for me the expression of the mystery of predator life.

Once more, kind thanks and with best regards,

Yours sincerely,

Karel H Voous

Enclosed with this letter was indeed a photocopy of his published poem, which I recount here in full, as published in the Journal of the Yamashina Institute of Ornithology (vol. 21, p. 138; 1989).  


In Remembrance of the Marquess
Dr. Yoshimaro Yamashina

Karel H. Voous

The bird proclaims eternal beauty,
   divine design.
Even if in reality of nature
the bird is aggresive, competitive,
as egoistic as its genes.

The bird sings its eternal song:
   for Whom?
Love and beauty everywhere:
   from Whom?
No sorrow, no sin, no war?
   Or . . . ?

The prime of ornithologists
   are like birds.
No scientific robots anymore.
The subject turns into the object.
The object becomes the subject once again.

In exactly this way I will remember him,
as I have observed him and spoken to him.

The blossom falls
when the fruit starts ripening.
Not always so.
To what end?
For what?
For whom?
For mankind, earth or heaven?

The bird continues singing,
continues dying
on its migrations far and near.
The mysteries of daily death
and eternal live.       
                                Easter 1989

    (Professor, Free University, Amsterdam, and 
     Institute of Taxonomic Zoology,
     Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

I now keep this treasured correspondence with Karel within the pages of his master work, "Owls of the Northern Hemisphere."  And offer this humble web page as a tribute to the soul of a man who loved owls.

                                                                 - Bruce G. Marcot, May 2006


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