It’s fair to say that the Alolan Starters are all popular, but Rowlet is likely the most popular of all. With its round body and large eyes, Rowlet is the epitome of cute. The bowtie doesn’t hurt either. The anime did a wonderful job with Rowlet, giving it an endearing personality and the skills to win over its own evolved form.
Rowlet is, rather obviously, based on an owl, specifically the barn owl (Tyto alba). The scientific name comes from Ancient Greek & Latin meaning “white owl”, referring to the bird’s white, heart-shaped face. Like most owls, the barn owl is a nocturnal predator. Its ears are asymmetrically placed, with one above the eyes and the other below. This gives greater detection of sound, so the barn owl doesn’t require sight to locate prey in the dark. Special extensions on the feathers reduce wingbeat noise, allowing for greater stealth. Its legs and toes are slender and widespread, allowing the owl to feel for prey through foliage or snow.
Rowlet shares a lot of these qualities: it attacks with kicks, can fly very quietly, and is more active during the night. The latter point is further enhanced by Rowlet’s Grass-typing: the Pokémon absorbs sunlight through photosynthesis during the day, which is a process only seen in plants. Grass Pokémon overall appear to lean more on the flora side than fauna, though species like Sawsbuck can be a meld of both.
Knowing this, Decidueye’s Ghost typing makes a little more sense, doesn’t it? Of course, owls have long been associated with the supernatural: in many cultures, owls are harbingers of death and ill fortune due to their nocturnal nature and eerie sounds. The barn owl does not hoot but vocalizes in screeches instead, which can unnerve a passing by traveler. Ironically, owls are good luck in modern Japan, where talismans and charms are modeled after them.
Decidueye could also draw inspiration from the extinct stilt-owls (Grallistrix). Grallistrix lived in Hawaii and had long legs – like Decidueye – leading scientists to assume it may have been terrestrial in some manner, evolving this habit due to lack of mammalian predators. Once humans arrived, Grallistrix were overtaken by the introduction of foreign animals such as pigs and rats as well as habitat loss through agriculture.
Western fans posit that Decidueye is based on the famous English hero Robin Hood. Often depicted wearing Lincoln Green, Robin Hood was a highly skilled archer and swordsman who fought against the corrupt Sherriff of Nottingham, stealing money from the rich to distribute amongst the poor. Narrative ballads describing Robin Hood’s adventures first appeared in the late 15th century, and the tales of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men have continued well into the present day. Dartrix is also believed to have links to England: its narcissistic tendencies, near constant need to preen, and the bowtie all suggest the “dapper gentleman”, a man who spends much of his time keeping his physical appearance in neat order.
However, Rowlet appears as a starter in Pokémon Legends: Arceus, and there is some significance behind this selection related to the Ainu people. The Ainu often hunted with bows and wore cloth like Decidueye’s cloak. Furthermore, Legends: Arceus may take place in an era like the Japan's Taishō period, where the country experienced western influence that continued from the preceding Meiji period, so perhaps the “dapper gentleman” is a reasonable inspiration after all.
Ainu mythology tells of a kamuy (god) named Cikap-kamuy, who is depicted as a great owl who watches over behavior of both humans and other kamuy. In his most famous myth, Cikap-kamuy wanted to send a message to the heavens about a famine affecting mankind. However, Cikap-kamuy’s message and instructions took six full days to recite, and the first two messengers, Crow and Mountain Jay, fell asleep before hearing the entire message and were swiftly killed. Dipper Bird, however, waited patiently, and was able to return with news that the kamuy of fish and game was upset that humans were not showing proper respect with their gifts. Cikap-kamuy taught the humans proper rituals after killing fish or deer, and the famine ceased once the kamuy were appeased. Kaepora Gaebora, from The Legend of Zelda series, may also have been inspired by this Ainu myth.
The Japanese names for Rowlet and Dartrix both derive from the Japanese word for “owl”, 梟 fukurō. In Rowlet’s case, it includes the character for “wood” (木 moku) to create “Mokuroh” (モクロー). Dartrix simply adds the English word “throw”, resulting in “Fukuthrow” (フクスロー). Decidueye is “Junaiper” (ジュナイパー), which is a combination of “juniper” and “sniper”, though the Japanese word for “tree” (樹 ju) may also be included.
Rowlet’s evolutionary line is proof that while a Pokémon may appear relatively straightforward at first glance, there may be less obvious nuances that pull the entire concept together. This is one reason why Pokémon is so fascinating to me. The more details I learn about what inspired a Pokémon or a human character, the more invested I become. There’s always something to learn, even for people like me who have been around since the very beginning. In this case, the Pokémon that’s round.