Friday, January 25, 2013

Owl song: “Forlorn but melodious”

I was up rather late last night working on board business and other matters… Around 2:30am I heard a screech owl call, just once. It’s an odd sound, this owl song: a long, descending wail or whinny.

I assume that the bird I heard last night was the little grey screech owl that has taken up residence in one of our big oak trees, as I wrote about here:

Here’s another, more recent photo from last week:

(The little owl is out there right now as I write, grey and still, part of the tree, almost invisible to those who do not look, who cannot see.)

The owl’s song reminded me of this passage from Thoreau’s Walden:
For sounds in winter nights, and often in winter days, I heard the forlorn but melodious note of a hooting owl indefinitely far; such a sound as the frozen earth would yield if struck with a suitable plectrum, the very lingua vernacular of Walden Wood, and quite familiar to me at last, though I never saw the bird while it was making it.
And this, also from Walden:
When other birds are still, the screech owls take up the strain, like mourning women their ancient u-lu-lu. Their dismal scream is truly Ben Jonsonian. Wise midnight bags! It is no honest and blunt tu-whit tu- who of the poets, but, without jesting, a most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolations of suicide lovers remembering the pangs and the delights of supernal love in the infernal groves. Yet I love to hear their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along the woodside; reminding me sometimes of music and singing birds; as if it were the dark and tearful side of music, the regrets and sighs that would fain be sung. They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape night-walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions. They give me a new sense of the variety and capacity of that nature which is our common dwelling. Oh-o-o-o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! sighs one on this side of the pond, and circles with the restlessness of despair to some new perch on the gray oaks. Then- that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! echoes another on the farther side with tremulous sincerity, and- bor-r-r-r-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods.
And this, also from Walden:
I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have. All day the sun has shone on the surface of some savage swamp, where the single spruce stands hung with usnea lichens, and small hawks circulate above, and the chickadee lisps amid the evergreens, and the partridge and rabbit skulk beneath; but now a more dismal arid fitting day dawns, and a different race of creatures awakes to express the meaning of Nature there.

— Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), American philosopher, author, and naturalist.

Many raptors (hawks, eagles, owls) are beginning their courtship at this time of year. Listen at night to see if you can hear the owls' love songs. Listen during the day to the love songs of our hawks, and watch their courtship dances, as I did recently:

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