An Uncommon Caregiver: Florence Nightingale’s Feathered Nursing Assistant

Little Owl morguefile-001I’m honored to introduce you to Ann Marie Ackermann. A mutual friend introduced me to Ann Marie because of our interest in owls as well as books. I told Ann Marie I’d had two powerful encounters with owls. She said she knew a wonderful story about Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing and caregiving, and her pet owl. Many of us have experienced healing help from dogs and cats and also from nature, but I was fascinated by Nightingale’s relationship with this unique animal caregiver. I think you will be, too.


As Florence Nightingale bent over her patient, the pint-sized creature popped its head out of her pocket and stared at the burn victim.

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale (public domain)

For a moment, the child forgot her pain. Florence pulled the owl out of her pocket and set it next to her patient. The owl dipped and bowed, bobbed its head, and curtsied. Athena, as Nightingale called her pet, distracted the girl and helped her endure the painful procedure of changing dressings.

There has always been something about owls – their silent flight, plaintive calls, and huge, unreadable eyes – that evokes the otherworldly. To look at an owl is to briefly forget yourself. Florence Nightingale had never planned to take advantage of that in nursing. The story of how an owl came to be her nursing assistant sounds like the stuff of Greek mythology.

It happened at the Parthenon, of all places.

Florence holding Athena

drawing by Frances Parthenope Varney, ~1855

Florence Nightingale visited Greece in 1850. On June 5, as she was walking along the walls of the Acropolis, she noticed some boys tormenting a little ball of fluff. An owlet had fallen from its nest. Nightingale rescued the bird for the price of 6 lepta and turned her energies to nursing her new patient.

Her new charge was a Little Owl, Athene noctua. This nine-inch, brown and white speckled creature, whose diet consists of insects and the occasional mouse, was the sacred bird of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and her Roman counterpart, Minerva. Ancient artists frequently depicted both goddesses with a Little Owl on their hands and shoulders.

Goddess Athena wih owl (wikipedia)

Goddess Athena wih owl (wikipedia)

The voyage home nearly killed Athena; the ship didn’t have the right food. Florence became too seasick to care for the pets she was bringing home from Greece, the owlet, two tortoises and a cicada named Plato. Athena eventually ate Plato, but Florence shrugged her shoulders and commented that she now had two pets rolled into one.

Back in England, Florence’s tiny patient regained its health and became a caregiver. Florence brought Athena along on house calls. In some cases, Athena’s antics helped the patients forget their pain. Athena “assisted greatly,” wrote Florence’s sister Frances. Sometimes the best medicine comes from the least expected places.

At home, Athena selected a favorite perch between statuettes of Theseus and Mercury on the top of the bookcase. From there she pounced on flies and an occasional morsel from the dining room table. When Florence herself became ill, Athena remained her constant companion and cheered her by running “races all round the room after imaginary mice.”

When she recovered, Florence had to travel to provide nursing services in the Crimean War. While she was busy packing, Athena was accidentally locked in the attic and died the day Florence was to leave. Florence was so grief-stricken she postponed her journey a few days and arranged to have Athena prepared by a taxidermist. Athena, the stuffed nursing assistant, is now on display in the Florence Nightingale Museum in London.

Little Owl sunning in broken nesting box (photo by A.M Ackermann)

Little Owl sunning in broken nesting box (photo by A.M Ackermann)

Florence wept when Athena’s body was placed in her hands. “Poor little beastie,” she said. “It was odd how much I loved you.”

She later wrote home from Turkey and told Frances how, while walking home from the hospital, an unexpected encounter with a Little Owl brought back memories of Athena. “Athena came along the cliff quite to my feet, rose upon her tiptoes, bowed several times, made her long melancholy cry, & fled away – like the shade of Ajax – I assure you my tears followed her.”

Have you ever found comfort in unexpected places?

Ann Marie Ackermann (photo by Inge Hermann)

Ann Marie Ackermann (photo by Inge Hermann)

Ann Marie Ackermann, JD has been watching birds since before the time she could even read a field guide. She started at the age of six, often climbing the trees behind her parents’ house for better views of the wildlife. As an adult, she participates in ornithological field research and publishes frequently about birds, both in academic journals and the popular press.

Two years ago, she wrote an article for a historical journal about the history of the birdlife in the German town where she now lives. The 19th century memoir of a local forester was one of her sources. Ann Marie was surprised when he mentioned a local murder that was solved 37 years later in America. Before she moved to Germany, Ann Marie had worked as a prosecutor in Washington State, and she recognized immediately how unusual this case was. No other German case of the era was solved so long after the crime, and no other German murder was solved in America.

So Ann Marie started researching the murder, reading the 180-year-old German police reports and tracking, in the American archives, the assassin’s flight from the law and refuge in the United States. When she discovered that the assassin and Robert E. Lee had fateful encounter, she knew she had a story. Ann Marie’s forthcoming book tells the story of Robert E. Lee’s early life set against the backdrop of Germany’s most unusual true crime case. Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee will be published by Kent State University Press in 2017. Visit her online at

Frances Parthenope Varney, Athena an Owlet from the Parthenon (England, s.n. 1855), pp. 25 & 27.
Sue Moriarty, ed., Florence Nightingale: Letters from the Crimea (Manchester, U.K.: Mandolin 1997) p. 102.


  1. My 3 yr old grandaughter and I have a love for ” hoot hoots! I’ll tell her this storyin my words
    Here, in VT. the snowy owl has made a great comeback
    Hope your trip to see Jim was very fulfilling for you both

    • Thanks for your owl story, Patt. I watch for owls, but haven’t seen one in a few years. I know they’re out there.
      It was good to see my Cambridge family.

      • A few tips for increasing your chances of finding an owl in the wild:

        (1) Crows like to harrass owls. If you notice crows mobbing something, check it out; it’s likely to be an owl or hawk. Crows can find them better than you and you can let them do the work for you.

        (2) Owls have favorite perches, often close to the trunk of a tree. They whitewash the trunk with their droppings. If you find whitewish, stop to look for the owl, but be careful not to disturb it. They need their daytime sleep!

        Good luck!

        • Maybe the spring melt will reveal owl nesting spots. I’m surprised they don’t show up at my always busy bird feeder since they hunt small birds, but I don’t see them there. Thanks, Ann Marie.

  2. I didn’t know the story about Florence Nightingale’s pet owl. What a fascinating story.

  3. This is the most marvellous story thank you Elaine for sharing it. I had no idea that Florence Nightingale had this special relationship with an owl.
    Here in South Africa, the black population believe that an owl is a harbinger of death so they are afraid of them. At our old home, it was such a pleasure to see owls perching on our tennis court posts at night – sometimes. I haven’t seen one for a while now … though an owl house has been built in one of the trees here in the townhouse complex where I live.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed Ann Marie’s story. It’s a terrific break from my usual posts. I found the website of the Florence Nightingale museum where they have the stuffed owl and call it Nightingale’s most treasured possession:

      Many cultures see owls associated with death as well as wisdom. Those big eyes see into the darkness. The Greek Goddess Athena was associated with owl as wisdom, but I’m more interested in owl as harbinger or companion in death. I recently read that the association of owls and death was true in Mesoamerica and now you tell me also in Africa. Owls attend the Greek goddess Hekate who travels to the Underworld and then back into life, and also the Goddess Inanna (Sumeria, 2000-3000 BC) who goes to the Great Below to be initiated into the wisdom of death. I’ve had a few memorable encounters with owls, but haven’t seen any in a few years. I’ll keep watching. I’m glad you’re watching from where you are, too.

  4. Thanks for sharing this fascinating story. 🙂 I suppose Florence had compassion beyond what her nursing duties required.

    • She must have, Debby. But I’m also interested in how this beloved owl nearly died from hunger on one trip and then died on another because of negligence. Maybe she had more to handle than she could and when she was ill, her assistants didn’t care about Athena.

      • I think the problem on the ship back to England was the lack of insects to feed Athnea. The captain offered salt pork. Salt is not appropriate for an owl’s diet. I’m just glad Athena survived the trip.

  5. The Little Owl is also associated with death in Europe, but there is a biological explanation for that. Little Owls eat primarily insects, and insects are attracted to light. Before the advent of electrical lighting, homes were much darker at night. An exception was during a death watch, when an oil lamps would have been kept burning. That light, shining through the windows, attracted insects, and the insects Little Owls.

    For that reason, many people could expect a visit from a Little Owl during their last hours. So the owls became associated with death although they were not the cause of death.

    • I can see that, Ann Marie. I’m also a Jungian, so I like the marriage of practical and symbolic explanations for things and don’t find them in conflict. The human psyche holds these experiential rational connections in mysterious symbolic ways.

  6. Thank you. I love this story about Florence Nightingale. Owls, nightingales, … isn’t it great to hear birds again in Ithaca? It almost sounds like spring outside. Cheers!

  7. What a sweet story. Animals are amazing. I have had a few wonderful birds… Bubo my cockatiel, and Daisey my duck, along with Barnabas the parakeet and Boogie the parakeet, and a multitude of other furry children. Animals love us like humans cannot, and talk with their hearts and actions rather than words. We are blessed to share our lives with them. As in this story, often they choose us rather than us choosing them <3

    • Thanks for your comments, Sharon. I agree that animals love us in a way humans cannot. At the moment, I’m very attached to my dog. My 99-year-old mother-in-law is attached to her, too. The most healing and soothing thing I can do for my mother-in-law is bring the dog to visit. I notice how M-I-L touches, pets, rubs with her hands and feet, caresses ears, feeds treats, and talks puppy talk. I do the same. I think it’s especially important to have an animal when we aren’t hugging humans often–and I’m a bit hug deprived since my husband died.

  8. Thank you so much for this wonderful story, Owls are a great treasure in my life and in the Dream of my life, more so when in the dark times, just last week a hug owl appeared on the decking outside my window and I felt inspired by this sight of the return of a much loved companion~ The Goddess Returns~the Beautiful Feminine, beyond ordinary sight but seen with the Heart. Thank you.

    • Hannah, thanks for your lovely comment. I’m make sure Ann Marie knows about it.

      I also have a long love for owls and have had a few powerful owl experiences on my land. One was so striking, but I haven’t written about it yet. So far owls haven’t appeared in my dreams, but I watch for them in my world and hope for them in my dreams. It sounds as though you would enjoy many of the posts I write about healing through nature and lessons of nature. There’s a new post this week called “Bloom Where You Are Planted.” Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment.

  9. Thanks for your comments, Hannah. I’ve been watching birds ever since I was a kid and have always thought there was something special about owls. Something spiritual and other-worldly. It’s so interesting how Florence Nightingale intuitively integrated that into her nursing.

  10. I, too, have had mysterious encounters with owls, particularly around the time of my mother’s passing.

    Thank you for this.

    • I had a few myself, Saskia. They felt deeply meaningful and symbolic. I can’t say I completely understand them, but I continue to explore.

  11. Each morning I awaken to Mumbles, on the cover of Martin Windrow’s book which sits on the chest at the foot of my bed. Mumbles is The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar, who was Martin’s pet 1978-1993. Stacey O’Brien’s Wesley,2008 and William Service’s Owl,1969 tell of their relationships with their owl. I came across Athena some years ago but had never seen her ‘Aunt Frances’ memoir. Each morning Magpies congregate on my 2nd floor deck waiting for breakfast – meat scraps from the previous night’s dinner or cat crunchies softened in beef, chicken, tuna broths, etc… Turkey carcass lasts for days as they bang away on the bones. One looks in the sliding glass door and pecks if he sees the red container that I put out filled with scraps. Lovely to share the lives of other species.. Edwin Way Teale’s praying mantis, Dinah. Thanks so much for Athena’s biography as observed by the Nightingale sisters.

    • Thanks for commenting on your relationship with owl, Nina. This piece is a guest post written by a friend a few years ago, but I’m exploring owls again. You might be interested in a recent piece I wrote called “An Owl, A Dream, and a Mystery” ( I don’t know the children’s books about owls, but I’ll find them in the library. In my recent owl story, I associated the owl with a different goddess although Athena is the one who often comes to mind. I share my life with many bird species who live in nesting boxes on my land or come to feeders. I saw a magnificent Kestrel the other day. It sounds like you do the same.

  12. Thank you for sharing this delightful story! Lovely to have discovered your website.

    • Thank you, Karen. I’m glad you’ve found my website, too. This piece is one of two or three guest articles I’ve posted by other authors. Almost everything was written by me, but Ann Marie found a great way to make her work fit my website themes. Her article is popular. I hope you’ll find more you enjoy here.

  13. Taking care of Elders is really an important role to do. They feel loved by giving them full attention or by being attentive to their their needs.
    So building an aged care center would probably be more on focusing to elders, being attentive to their needs and giving them more time by answering or talking to them frequently.
    Second priority would be the system- by doing the following mentioned priorities- the system would probably be the second priority, a center that aims to provide good assistance needs a system that is user friendly, the ease of use of the system would be a great help in focusing on what is more important. Storiicare is known as a platform designed for Aged care, Senior care, Assisted living, Aged Daycare facilities and centers that is very user-friendly and helps connect with family members.

    • I agree, Kim. After over 20 years of taking care of my mom and mother-in-law, and my sick husband, I am not involved with eldercare the last year–although I still volunteer at Hospice. My mom who had severe dementia lived in a kind, conscious place, but it’s rare to find such a facility. My husband lived at home until his death. Thanks for your comment.

  14. Hi Elaine
    Hope you are well in these uncertain and unprecedented times?
    Here are some facts,which I would like to share with You which bring me solace❤️X
    In 2015 I visited an art exhibition in York England,
    The artist was to become a close friend and now resides in Texas USA.
    His love for british birds was equalled only by myself.
    For sale that day was a painting called the “The Messenger “ it was of a Little Owl perched on a rusty old farm scythe.
    The painting was to represent the Journey to and fro from the underworld by the owl relating messages from loved ones.
    I purchased that painting on the hope and dreams that my brother Raymond who had passed away in 2010 could always contact me‍♀️.
    Years later my partner was doing a general knowledge quiz on line. One of the questions was, What did Florence Nightingale keep in her pocket as a pet whilst nursing,neither of us knew the answer, so out came Wikipedia,to reveal the Little owl named Athena.
    This immediately took my thoughts back to “The Messenger”, on further reading it was to reveal the date of Miss Nightingales passing as 13th August 1910,
    For a split second I turned ice cold,and a shudder down my spine,
    You see My Brother Raymond had passed away on 13th August 2010 exactly 100 years to the day.
    Florence Nightingale would be 200 years old this year maybe she has returned to rid us of this evil virus❤️xx
    Stay safe everyone xxx

    • I’m glad you found out more about your attraction to that owl from my friend’s guest post. Sometimes an image will grab us and we’re still unearthing meaning many years later. I love owls in Greek mythology as companions of Athena, but even more as beings who see in the night and travel with Hecate or, in Sumerian mythology, with Inanna. I love those synchronicities that make it clear we’re on the right trail. May you always stay in contact with your brother (my only brother died in 2017) and may we have a guardian angel to guide us through these alarming times. Safety and patience to you and all.

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