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Finnish ‘torpedo owl’ photo still viral, two years later

A photo of a northern hawk owl taken in Kokkola, Finland by amateur photographer Jani Ylikangas has attracted considerable attention since it was taken two years ago. In that short time, ‘torpedo owl’ has been featured by several media companies, has become the source of scores of internet memes, and even has his own social media site and a mobile game in his name.

Kuvassa pöllö syöksyy torpedomaisesti ja katsoo kameraan.
The photo of the piercing gaze of a northern hawk owl in flight. Image: Jani Ylikangas

Finnish amateur nature photographer Jani Ylikangas’ lens captured a northern hawk owl hunting in full stealth mode in early 2014. Since then, his life hasn’t been the same. He says he is still contacted about his famous photo daily.

“It has taken on a life of its own on the internet,” he laughs.

Torpedo owl now has his own Facebook page, and the image has spawned a mobile game and hundreds of internet memes. Media houses from the Daily Mail in the UK to Bild magazine in Germany have also made him the subject of feature stories.

“Torpedo owl even made CNN’s Year in Pictures list in 2015,” the photographer says.

Stealing the image

Ylikangas has also seen the flip side of social media success, however, as he also receives daily notices about his image being used illegally. Even though his famous photo is free to use on the bird’s signature Facebook page, many internet surfers have nevertheless downloaded and re-published it, trying to pass it off as their own.

“It is pretty commonplace; people forget I own the copyright. A prime example is that someone actually submitted my image to a photo contest with a cash prize under their own name. The process to retrieve my photo from the contest is still underway,” Ylikangas said.

Ylikangas says reporting about his photo has also often ventured into sensationalism. Some writers have even turned torpedo owl into a unique species that only exists in Finland. 

“I’ve tried to see all of the attention as a positive thing because people are showing an interest. The real information is out there for those people that really want to know,” he said.

The real story

The owl that eventually became a global star moved to the Kokkola area already in October 2013. Amateur photographer Ylikangas observed him for months and learned about his habits and preferred hunting grounds while taking pictures of the beautiful bird.

He took the photo that broke the internet in early 2014 on a clear winter day. The minus 25 degree Celsius weather had formed a beard of frost on the northern hawk owl’s chin.

'Torpedo owl' had a field mouse in his sights, and Ylikangas waited in anticipation for him to take flight.

“I had earlier managed to capture a few photos of him assuming his torpedo position for his approach, but they weren’t that interesting. The background was just the sky and his position and the lighting wasn’t ideal,” he said.

But this time the stars aligned, and a once-in-lifetime photo with a special twist was born.

“If you try long enough, sometimes you just get lucky,” he said.

A real character

Ylikangas thinks he saw torpedo owl once the following autumn as well. 

“He had a funny personality, that’s for sure. I’ve never met an owl quite like him, diving in for the kill like that, with his wings tucked in so tightly.”

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