Night Birds.

The barred owl was back last night, calling out under the almost full and brightly ringed moon. A couple of weeks ago I was taking the garbage out in the dark, because of course that’s the best possible time to carry an overstuffed twenty-pound plastic bag around the patio, down a set of steps, behind the car, and under the deck where there’s no light at all. I heard the barred owl’s distinctive call, “who cooks for you? who cooks for you?” from the southeast, where there’s still a pretty heavily wooded area between houses. I stopped to see if another one would answer. We sometimes also hear great horned owls and my wife can hoot back at them and get them to respond, once even convincing one to move closer. I can’t tell if the owl knew it was talking to a person and thought it was funny or whether it was fooled and ultimately disappointed when the owl it thought it was talking to vanished.

In classical mythology owls are a symbol of wisdom, associated with Athena, although I think corvids rank higher on the scale of bird intelligence. Other cultures see owls as bad omens, though—they fly silently in the darkness and swoop down on prey, and they have those large, rounded heads. As with all anthropomorphizing, though, I think it says more about us than it does the animals themselves. They’re just trying to get through the night, take down a few mice, and cough up the bones and fur, which is a pretty efficient way to eat. Imagine being able to swallow a chicken whole and have your stomach strip away all the good parts so you could hack up the feathers and bones in a compact mass about half an hour later. It would make dining out a lot more interesting.

I’m not sure what the fact that I’m thinking about this says about me.

I was happy it was a barred owl and not a barn owl, which I know are around here and are very distinctive, I’d even say handsome, even among owls, but they make a sound like someone being murdered. And then there are screech owls, which I have heard around here. Their call sounds like the laugh of an evil clown hiding in the trees waiting to eat children, although you have to respect the evil clowns for swallowing them whole then about half an hour later hacking up all the bones in a compact mass inside the backpack.

After the barred owl my favorite experience is the night I was home alone and I kept hearing a repeating bass sound, like someone playing In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida just outside the window. Finally I went outside to investigate, because of course when I hear a weird noise the best thing to do is go and wander around in the dark to see what’s causing it. We have a big shagbark hickory tree right outside the den window, and silhouetted against the night sky I could see a great horned owl sitting there.

We stared at each other for several minutes, then I went back inside. It seemed like the wise thing to do.

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  1. allison

    I was walking at Percy Warner park a few weeks ago and heard a barred owl. I had to look up the call on my bird identifier app, because there are only a few I know by heart. I would have described it a “Koo Koo Ka Choo”, but then, I am a Simon and Garfunkel enthusiast.

    We had a great horned owl at the house right before Covid started, and it was massive. I heard it before I saw it, and it sounded so good and loud, I thought someone was using a bird call soundtrack.

    Agree that crows are extra smart. I read a fun fact the other day that researchers who study crows often offer them Cheetos as a snack – not only does it make them easier to spot, what with the bright orange color – but the birds love them.

    Smart birds, indeed.
    allison recently posted…Spiral UnboundMy Profile

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I like “Koo Koo Ka Choo”–in fact, who doesn’t love Mrs. Robinson–but “who cooks for you” seems to be a pretty popular way of describing the barred owl’s call. In fact there’s even a beer that’s got a barred owl on the can and it’s called “Who Cooks For You”.
      And I didn’t appreciate how smart starlings are until I just started reading a book about them. Yes, they’re invasive here in the US but they’re still pretty remarkable birds–and great mimics.

  2. M.L. James

    Chris, I love the fact that there’s an owl out there grooving to its own version of In-a-gadda-da-vida. I also love that you’re the soul that runs toward the potential evil instead of running away from it. Extra points if you scream while you’re running so that you’re easier to find! So, do you have plans for watching the eclipse in April? Mona

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Mona, normally when I think there’s danger I do run away from it but there was something intriguing about the rhythmic sound in the front yard that I just had to go investigate. And I don’t have specific plans for watching the eclipse yet, but when it gets closer I’ll definitely want to make plans to be in a good spot to see it. The one a few years ago was the first full eclipse I’ve ever seen and it was amazing!


    Chris, one of my patients, who is from India, told me that in her culture the owl is considered very stupid, so they think it’s pretty hilarious that owls are a symbol of wisdom to us. In any case, I always appreciate your wisdom.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Ann, that’s funny and fascinating. I’ve wondered how the owl came to be regarded as a symbol of wisdom for the Greeks, and I think in India they may have a better idea of what the owl is really like.


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