Thursday, July 10, 2008
Just the other night I looked out onto the porch and realized that the creature sitting there was an owl. It flew up into a nearby oak. When I went outside to investigate, it, and several members of its family, clacked their bills at me. That's owl for "We know you're there." + standard mild disapproval. They also made some uncanny purring slow warbles to indicate as far as they were concerned my presence didn't amount to much.
You may well wonder how it is that I presume to know so much about owl language. It began in my youth, when I captured a couple of screech owls and brought them home for pets. That was my idea of what happened. I was a little surprized that catching them involved just reaching into a cedar tree and picking them up. They glared at me, but otherwise seemed to have no problem with being handled. What actually happened is that I was a dupe.
Once ensconced in their spacious and carefully crafted chicken wire cage, with a branch to perch on and every other amenity a ten year old amateur ornithologist could contrive, they let me know where I stood. My function was to bring them gobbits of fresh raw meat on a regular basis. It was to be understood that fingers would serve just as well as a mouse, if they entered the cage without a mouse. As to petting, one does not pet one's superior. Got it? They didn't even deign to look AT me, they looked through me. Clack clack bill means "the thing is near - it better have meat." Pretty soon I took them back.
In spite, or because of, their attitude; I like them. I began to practice one of their easier calls - a two note tu-wheu, percussive on the tu, a whizzing downward pitching whistle with a fade-out on the wheu. It means "I'm here."
I don't think any human can approximate the sounds of their conversations - haunted elfin manical laughter-like screeches with chortling sine wave bends that sound as though the darkness itself is a distorting liquid in motion. If that is about courtship, I'm not sure I can handle the details. Once something uncanny caused me to panic and I ran for cover in the edge of a dark woods (I think that it says something about me that when I panic I run TOWARD the dark woods.) - hiding in a bush, flushed with adrenaline, and shaking with fear, suddenly the blackness all around me exploded with exultant and totally insane screeches - "You're here!" I nearly lost my mind.
Screech Owls are not the only kind around here. The biggest are the Great Horned Owls. I see them sometimes, but more I often I hear them, on frigid moonlit nights in the depth of winter, hooting their deep hoots. That's when they mate. It figures. Cold passion. One of the strangest things I've ever seen, and one of the most un-nerving, happened one winter night when I heard my beloved fox hound, Louis, barking down by my studio. I bundled up and scrunched out to see what was going on, the full moonlight almost as bright as daylight on the sparkling snow. When I got near the studio I looked up and saw what he was so concerned about. There was a vortex of great horned owls silently spiraling over the studio, some landing silently and briefly in the giant beech beside it, before rejoining the black winged shapes dircling in the air, at least 20. I had never in my life seen more than two. Then all at once they rose up and away. I don't know what it was about. As if to punctuate the strangeness, or make an omen of it, Louis, the singing hound, was killed by a car a couple of days later.
I happened to see the internal aspects of a Barred Owl some years ago, and I was very impressed by the large translucent corrugated pipe that produces its hra hra hra haraaall. Spurred on by what I had seen, I got a CD recording of Owls of North America and put it in the player in my car. For several weeks, while I was driving, I would track the sounds with my voice, gradually learning what sort of vocal contortions were needed to make hoots and haraaalls and screeches. It's probably a good thing that other drivers could not hear the sounds that I was making. I think some of my facial expressions must have stirred feelings of horror, pity and disgust, judging from the looks I got at stoplights. I looked back the only way I could while singing in owl. "One does not pet one's superiors." "Bring meat." After I felt that I had the technique, I branched off from standard owl and did my own thing. By the time I went into the recording studio to record "Owl Music" and did a mic check to show the sound engineer what sort of sounds I was planning to make I really didn't care if it scared him to death. Luckily he decided that a human owl crossover was worth recording. I love to listen to that recording, but most everyone I've played it for finds it disturbing.
The photo of the screech owl, grey phase, is a bad copy of one by my wonderful photographer friend William, who took it from the studio porch, as is the one, not a bad copy, taken in the woods nearby, of me in my nest.