Of Smoke and Mirrors
The Scandinavian Owlbear
The owlbear is a genus under the family of Ursidae and as such the four known species of owlbears have much in common with other Ursidae of the genus Ursus, that is to say bears. Like their cousins owlbears are large predatory mammals, powerfully built with a bulky and robust frame and with a very small or non-existent tail depending on the specie. They move on four sturdy, short and fairly straight limbs that holds a tremendous strength and though they are not ideally suited for speed they can prove quite fast across short distances. Due to their heavy frame and the weight distribution across their body the owlbear, much like the common bear, has a lumbering gait and is capable of balancing on its hind-legs over prolonged periods of time. Their massive front paws are fairly flat and somewhat less dexterous than those of the common bear, and their non-retractable claws are also exceptionally large and vicious. The claws are ideally suited for rending flesh, especially when coupled with the massive strength of the owlbear, though they are still dexterous enough for activities such as digging and fishing.
The most notable difference however between the genus Ursus and Ursus Strix is the shape of the head and skull. The owlbear sports a broad and flat head, set on a short and stout neck. The skull is immensely thick, leaving the creature well protected, and instead of a snout the owlbear sports a massive, bony beak very much reminiscent of a birds. The beak is however notably larger than most birds, razor sharp and on most species it sports jagged, “teeth-like” edges. The owlbear lacks visible ears, its earholes hidden within its coat at the sides of its head, and its sense of smell is also severely limited with its nasal cavity pushed far back behind the beak. To compensate for this the creature has developed very large eyes set just behind the beak, as well as an astonishing eyesight comparable to that of most birds of prey. The owlbear is also perfectly capable of seeing in low light conditions and near pitch-black darkness, making it a fearsome nocturnal predator. It is in particular these head features which has earned the owlbear its name, though it in truth has very little in common with actual owls.
The owlbear, much as ordinary bears, sports a heavy fur coat composed of two layers, a water-resistant outer coat and a thicker inner layer for insulation. By shedding the heavy outer layer in spring the creature can regulate its body heat, allowing various species to live in habitats ranging from the artic to the semi-tropical. Unlikely members of the genus Ursus however the owlbear’s coat is not monochrome but rather consists of one main colour with a lighter shading across the underside and head. Colouration can vary greatly, both between species and individuals, but in general the main coat is a shade ranging from brown to blackish. Most species of owlbear also sports a third type of hair whose growth is limited to the head, neck and forelimbs. These hairs are broad and very fluffy as well as extraordinarily long, appearing almost like feathers for which they are often mistaken. Of particular note is a sharp, v-like grown that dominate the visage of most owlbear species. The purpose of these feather-like hairs are ill understood even today, though as they can be puffed up it might be linked to the creatures mating displays.
The Alpine Owlbear
The owlbear, no matter its specie or habitat, is a apex-predator of the first order with no natural enemies of note except sapientkind. The owlbear usually prefers to hunt large undulants, in particular the various species of elk, though in truth an owlbear will eat anything that approaches too close. Due to its lack of speed over distances it prefers to attack from ambush, were its ability to close quickly and overpower the pray works to its advantage. Owlbears has been shown to exhibit a vicious cunning and are quite capable of remaining still in hiding for prolonged periods of time. Unlike most bears the owlbear is however not a scavenger, only rarely feeding on others kills, though both genus share a fondness for fish and a proficiency at catching them. Due to its comparative lack of dexterity and lack of teeth the owlbear does however not feed on the many roots and fruits oft favour by bears, beyond smaller berries, and like many large bears it is unable to climb effectively.
Like most bears an owlbear, when confronted, will often choose to attack sapients. Highly territorial they will often attack even when its preferred food sources are amply available. Indeed, the owlbear is often described as being hyper-aggressive and not entirely without basis. Though the exact reasons remain unknown owlbears are known to descend into a violent frenzy once blood is spilt, relentlessly attacking any and every living thing nearby before gorging itself on flesh. Only after feeding will the animal revert to its normal state, often loosing interest in the remains of its kills.
Habitat and variations:
The owlbear can be found across the major landmass of Eurasia and has proven capable of adapting to a wide range of habitats, ranging from the extreme cold of the arctic to the semi-tropic regions of Northern India and Southern China. In general all species of owlbear prefer heavily forested habitats, as it naturally relays on ambush predation, or coastal regions where they live of fish as much as other mammals. Though still a topic of some scholarly debate there currently are at least four clearly defined species of the genus Ursus Strix, though like amongst the more common Ursus species the variations are fairly small.
The Scandinavian Owlbear, also called the Common Owlbear, is as the name suggests native to the Scandinavian peninsula, though they can also be found inhabiting parts of the Balticum and North-Western Russia. The Scandinavian species is the largest of all owlbears, males growing to the impressive weights of near 900 kilograms, though they are notably shyer of Sapiens than most owlbear species. (Though that in truth says little.) The fur of the specie is normally a warm brown, with a grey or cream coloured undercoat.
The Grey Owlbear or the Siberian Owlbear, is a species native to much of northern Asia, mainly the great taiga forest belt stretching through Siberia. Almost as large as its Scandinavian cousin the Grey Owlbear favours coastal regions or large river valleys as it relies heavily on fish for its diet. The specie has notably longer claws than other owlbears, making it especially adept at scooping up fish from the rivers it hunts. The fur of the specie is normally a light grey with a near white undercoating, often with small black dots across the chest.
The Alpine Owlbear, more correctly called the Pamirian Owlbear, inhabits the mountains regions of Central Eurasia, from the Pamir knot to the Caucasus, and lives exclusively in high altitudes. Though by no means shy of sapients its inaccessible habitat means that the Alpine Owlbear is the least studied of all owlbear species. Indeed, some scholars still argue it is but a Grey Owlbear in an unexpected location. The species is described as long of limb and with a particularly vicious visage. Its coat is unusual, usually a mat brown speckled by fletches of grey and black, with a pure cream or white underside.
The Asian or Lesser Owlbear is the smallest of all owlbears and inhabits the southern and eastern foothills of the Himalayas. The species is noted for its small size amongst owlbears, usually no more than around 650 kilogram for males, its fairly short claws and a particularly vicious temperament. Territorial in the extreme the Asian Owlbear is know to attack and even follow any creature it views as competition, even when not directly threatened. Their coats are predominantly black, with creamy black undersides often spotted with brown and black. Their eyes are also notably black, an unusual trait as most other owlbears display yellow eye colouration.
The Asian Owlbear
History and contact with Sapients:
Whichever one of the theories of evolution of the species one holds to, whether the transmutation of Lamarck and Chambers or the natural selection of Darwin and Haeckel, it seems likely that there is a close evolutionary link between the genus of Ursus and Ursus Strix. No fossil records has so far shown any signs of the owlbear, making it likely that the genus is fairly young. Thought-out recorded history however the owlbear has been a hated and feared beast, much spun with myths and superstitions. It is likely based on ancient tales and texts that the owlbear once inhabited much of Northern Europe, and possibly also much of Russia, but the advancements of civilization has since driven them back. In Slavic folklore in particular the owlbear is equally feared and admired, often figuring prominently in tales as a tyrannical King of the Woods, violent and brutal, whom young heroes are want to vanquish. Similar tales are also found across Scandinavia and deep into Asia. In pagan Scandinavia the greatest of warriors known as “Berserker” were said to be like the owlbear and some sources claim that would drape themselves in the fur of owlbears in order to take on the creatures characteristic battle frenzy. Similarly amongst the tribal people of Northern India it is often held as an important warriors rite to hunt and slay an owlbear, locally known as the “Howling Death”.
Even in modern times the owlbear still poses a threat to sapientkind in certain parts of the world, in particularly in Scandinavia and in the Himalaya. The owlbear remains one of the most vicious man-killers, some accounts suggesting they can gain a taste for sapient flesh and switch to hunt sapients exclusively. This is however hard to verify. The owlbear is however prized across its habitat both as a worthy hunt, in particular across Central Asia and in India, and also as an excellent animal for the fighting pits. Before the implementation of the Legendarium Control Act of 1835 owlbears were regularly shipped to London for use in bear baiting displays, favoured by the crowds for its remarkable viciousness and stubborn endurance.