Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
More Tales From the Owl Whisperer
December 30, 2022
By Steve Grinley
Last month I share with you some owl stories from my friend, author, and fellow birder Brian Cassie of Foxboro. I thought I would close out another year sharing a couple more of his tales with you:
There is a page in Jane Yolen’s wonderful book, Owl Moon, where the dad shines the beam from his big flashlight on a Great Horned Owl while his child watches in amazement at his side.
I have read and re-read Owl Moon many times. It captures the essence and spirit and wonder and delight of an owl prowl perfectly. The father and child set off from their country home in the family-honored tradition of Dad taking one child out with him in a snow-crunching trek to find an owl. Sometimes there is an owl and sometimes not.
During my Big Owl Year, I wanted so much to go into the field with the child in Owl Moon and experience some taste of what I and other readers feel when we turn the pages.
Look in the book and you cannot really tell if the bundled up kid on the owl walk is a boy or a girl, but a girl it is and her name is Heidi. She is real and she loves owls and I gathered up the nerve to write her one summer’s day and ask if we could do a little owling sometime before the end of the year. I told her I knew her dad and I knew Owl Moon . That was enough for Heidi. She said, “Sure, you can come on our Christmas Bird Count in December.”
That sounded perfect.
And the months passed and mid-December came around and so did the Christmas Bird Count and one evening, at about 11:30, I knocked on Heidi’s farmhouse door. Before very long, Heidi and her friend and I were bouncing along in her van, pulling over and stopping and walking at any number of places pre-determined by Heidi. Fields and woodland patches and streamsides all produced owls – mostly screech owls. We were finding them at every turn and Heidi was gleeful and her high school friend, who had never seen an owl before this evening, was taking things in stride and keeping the tally. I was having a lovely time with the whole thing.
And then I heard a Great Horned Owl not far away and an impulse overwhelmed me and I asked Heidi to come by herself (well, with her dad’s flashlight) and we walked toward the owl calls and at some point I took the flashlight and pointed it into the branches and turned it on. And right then I was the dad with his daughter at his side, staring up at the big owl….the one that sometimes shows and sometimes doesn’t. The book came to life. And now, ten years later, I still get emotional recounting the moment.
This next tale from Brian might inspire you to go into the winter woods and search for owls:
Walk around in the woods and give some spirited Barred Owl calls and sooner than later something interesting is going to happen. Maybe jays and titmice will arrive en masse and start in mobbing the calls, thinking they have discovered an owl in their midst. Maybe a sapsucker, a bird that seemingly cannot resist responding to a Barred Owl’s calls, will swoop in and grab on to the closest vertical tree trunk to you. Maybe a Barred Owl will call back, or fly into view, or both. Maybe a hiker or two will come along and the owl you called in will put on a show for them.
These are common occurrences when Barred Owl callers are in the big woods that Barred Owls prefer. And then there are other, not so common outcomes!
Such as a boy’s voice answering from the woods, “Are you all right?”
Such as a man’s voice bellowing “SHUT UP” across a lake at midnight in December.
Such as your friend exclaiming, “That was so cool!”
“What was so cool?”
“The way that Barred Owl swooped down to within ten inches of your head!”
And recently, a new take completely: I called to a Barred Owl and it answered and we were having a little conversation when a 70ish woman came along.
“Hear the Barred Owl?” I asked.
“Yes I do. That’s a Barred Owl? How wonderful. Why is it calling at midday?”
“Because I called to it first. It’s answering. It’s a territorial thing.
“Do you know about the Merlin app?,” said she.
“Yup. But I don’t use it. I don’t have a phone, actually.”
“It’s amazing. It recognizes every call of every bird.”
“I wonder if it would recognize my calls as being those of a Barred Owl.”
[The Barred Owl is still calling to me at this point.]
Out came her phone.
I produced my best Barred Owl hoots.
“Nope. Merlin says you don’t sound anything like a Barred Owl.”
“Really. The Barred Owl thinks I do. Isn’t that some sort of validation?”
“No it isn’t. And why don’t you like technology?”
Happy New Year to all with hopes for many wonderful birds in 2023!