For the past few nights, very early in the morning before the other birds stir, we've been hearing two owls talking with each other in the treetops outside our bedroom window. They have lengthy but quiet conversations, their hooting conducted in sotto voce. We know they are Great Horned owls by their calls; also, once or twice we've been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of them flying overhead in the dark. On an amazing night last summer, one sat quietly perched on the streetlight pole for ten minutes or so while we watched from a respectful distance. Mostly, though, we know of their presence only from their disembodied voices and the occasional pile of feathers in the middle of talon marks in the ground.
Directly across the street is an old red barn, and we know there are barn owls living there,too, but they are even more elusive than their much larger cousins. All owls are silent fliers; their feathers are ruffled along the edges and soft as down, designed for stealth. You will never hear owl wings flapping, and, as big as they are, they land with the noiseless grace of ballet dancers. Barn owls do, however, make their presence known by their blood-curdling calls as they hunt for mice and voles. Hearing a barn owl scream in the dark is both thrilling and terrifying; it reminds me how glad I am not to be a rodent.
Common barn owl (Tyto alba)
Owls have long fascinated and frightened people. They are found worldwide, and almost every culture has ascribed symbolic power to them. They are seen as wise advisors, harbingers of death, good luck charms, bad luck portents, mischief-makers, protectors, and spirit guides. Their ghostly flight and mysterious calls have been part of folklore, poetry, and art as long as people have been telling stories and making marks. There are almost as many owl poems as there are poets, but this one makes me believe that someday, if I listen hard enough, I will understand what the owls outside my bedroom window are saying. I'm convinced it is something I need to know.
Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.
Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl's cry, a most melancholy cry
Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment.
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird's voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.
(Edward Thomas was a friend and contemporary of Robert Frost. He was killed in Flanders in 1917.)