Folk Beliefs about the Patoo
The Patoo or Patu is the Jamaican name for the owl. The name patoo is given both for the Jamaican owl and another bird, the night jar, which is sometimes mistaken for an owl. It is said that patoo is the same name given to the owl in parts of West Africa, particularly Ghana. It is not surprising that the name is prevalent in Jamaica as this is due to our West African linkage. In Jamaica there are two types of owls to which the name patoo is given. They are the white owl or screech owl and the Jamaican brown owl. The latter is said to be found only in Jamaica. Observation of the patoo shows that it has an upright perch which makes it rather easy for it to catch moths, lizards and rats. However moths are supposed to be its favourite food.
The patoo is seen in other cultures as representing wisdom. However, it is an object of great superstition in Jamaica. The sound of the cry of a patoo is believed to signify death. Many people stand by this belief as a fact and relate that after hearing the call of a patoo outside their window at night, somebody dies shortly after. Many such stories exist among people especially in the rural areas. It is also said that, during the slavery period in Jamaica, the slaves used to link the owl with death and therefore they would run away whenever they saw one. It is this fear that has been passed on to this generation by the ancestors.
The patoo is also a symbol of ugliness. In Jamaica, it is not uncommon to hear people telling others during quarrels "yuh ugly like patoo" or "yuh favour patoo". They will also use the phrase jokingly to friends during light conversations. There are also proverbs about the patoo, for example "Grudgeful mek patoo lay egg". This means people will go out of their way to do anything to measure up with others. This proverb actually came about because it was said that originally the owl was a bird that was not supposed to reproduce. However, according to legend, because of covetousness, it forced itself to do so and when it reproduced it came with an ugly offspring. There is another proverb relating to the patoo "Compulsory mek patoo nyam parch corn"; this conveys the meaning that when someone cannot find the right thing, they will have to make do with a substitute.
An old Arawak legend seeks to explain how the patoo came to be a bird that cannot see in the day. According to the legend, the patoo was once given a package and when it opened the package, it was shrouded by darkness and it therefore had to find a way of making use of the darkness. From then until now, the patoo has been unable to see in the light and thus became a nocturnal bird. The fact that the patoo flies around in the night, sometimes with its shrill eerie cry, is the chief reason why people associate it with duppies and death. In some areas it is even called the duppy bird.