Friday Find: Owlie Skywarn cards

In the early 1980s if you found yourself close to a tornado, you might have reached for one of these small tip cards. Before websites and social media were invented, one of these could go right into your wallet, next to your library card, your driver’s license and photos of your family –  always there when you needed them.

Photos of the front of the Owlie Skywarn card, showing Owlie the owl with his wings around three children with the words, "SKYWARN Tips for TORNADO SAFETY."

Owlie Skywarn cards were the same size as a credit card, and could be tucked into a wallet for easy reference in the early 1980s. (Image credit: NOAA National Weather Service)

The cards were produced and distributed by NOAA a few years after the huge dramatic tornado outbreak of April 1974 that changed severe weather forecasting forever. We do not have any records of where and how the cards were distributed, but it is likely they went to weather forecasters all over the country and perhaps also to libraries and schools in states where tornadoes had often occurred.

Photo of the inside of an Owlie Skywarn card, reading, "When a tornado threatens, your immediate action can save your life! STAY AWAY FROM WINDOWS, DOORS, AND OUTSIDE WALLS, PROTECT YOUR HEAD, *In homes and small buildings, go to the basement or to an interior part on the lowest level–closets, bathrooms, or interior halls. Get under something sturdy. *In schools, nursing homes, hospitals, factories, and shopping centers, go to pre-designated shelter areas..."
The Owlie Skywarn cards were folded. Inside, a list of helpful tips and the definitions of a “watch” and “warning” were meant to provide quick reference help before the development of smartphones or the world wide web and search engines. (Image credit: NOAA National Weather Service)

The cards feature Owlie Skywarn, the mascot of NOAA’s National Weather Service. Owlie was created in 1976 as the star of a black and white coloring book for children written for NWS by Dr. Franklyn M. Branley, Nature and Science Advisor to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and illustrated by Leonard Kessler. An owl figure was selected because of the saying, “the wise old owl,” and perhaps also because the author often worked with wildlife topics.

Photo of Tthe back of the Owlie Skywarn card reading, "TORNADOES often accompany SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS and are only one of many thunderstorm hazards. Other include: LIGHTNING - Kills and injures hundreds and starts fires. WINDS - Very strong, gusty winds can cause great damage. RAIN - Heave downfalls may result in flash floods. HAIL - Not a killer but can be very damaging."
The back of the Owlie Skywarn card. (Image credit: NOAA National Weather Service)

There are no accounts of why the original creators chose to make Owlie’s eyes tornadoes. But those eyes were used in the comics, no matter what type of weather Owlie was warning people about.

In the years that followed, Owlie was made into a full mascot. In 2004 his eyes were changed when the character was updated. Today you might see someone in the Owlie Skywarn suit at an in-person event where weather safety is being featured. You can also follow Owlie on many social media platforms, including Facebook and X/Twitter. Owlie’s educational materials are still helping families, schools and communities prepare for hazardous weather.


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