Hooting Back at the Owls
From a tree just beyond the stone wall that marks our property line, there came an astonishing series of barks and growls. A couple of possibilities flashed through my brain. Coyotes? Raccoons? Then I heard the diagnostic “Who cooks for you?”
Two barred owls – males, I surmised – were going head to head. I called downstairs to my wife, Gina, so she could listen. They were so close we could hear their voices quaver. They sounded like monkeys, like dogs, and occasionally like barred owls – “aw-aw-aw-aw-aw-aw—whooah!” – the “aws” ascending in pitch and culminating in a burst followed by a low sustained hoot filled with vibrato. It was as if we could hear their vocal cords quivering.
We live in a part of the outer suburbs with enough protected land, watershed property and big unsubdivided tracts to support a satisfyingly large number of animals that are qualitatively different than the standard deer, raccoons and skunks of suburbia. On our three acres alone we’ve found box turtles, wood frogs and gray tree frogs, ringneck snakes, luna moths and walking sticks, and an easy walk brings us to places where wood turtles and spotted turtles, marbled salamanders, bobcats and river otters can be found. Broad-winged hawks and red-shouldered hawks nest in our neighborhood, and in just about every month of the year we’ve heard the barred owls’ “Who-cooks-for-you? Who-cooks-for-you-all?” hoot.
But for reasons I can’t explain September has become the month for barred owls. Last September we heard them for 10 days in a row, or until their calls became so commonplace that I stopped counting. We heard them at three in the afternoon, and we heard them at 7:30 in the evening. We heard them before we went to bed and we heard them in the early morning.
One morning I woke up at 3:45 and couldn’t fall back asleep. An hour or so later, one of our cats wanted to come in, so I got up and opened the door. A barred owl was hooting. From down the driveway I heard it make what I think of as the other distinctive barred owl call, the ascending “aw-aw-aw-aw-aw-aw—whooah!” Then from the woods to the west an owl responded with a single syllable: “whoaw.” I stood listening for a few minutes and then stepped onto the deck. I realized there were two owls calling from down the driveway. They were regaling each other with the same “aw-aw-aw-aw-aw-aw—whooah!” call. The early morning was humid and cloudy but bright – there was a big moon behind the thin clouds. Every few minutes a slight wet breeze blew. The owls went back and forth, over and over. Finally, as I was preparing to go back in, I heard another one, far to the south, call “who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all.”
Four barred owls or had one flown away and resumed this interaction at a distance?
I couldn’t tell and, since I was wearing nothing but boxers, I was too chilled to linger to see if the answer revealed itself. Whether it was three or four, I was glad to know they were there, that I was living in their woods. But I wanted them to know they were in my woods too.
I cleared my throat and cupped my hands to my mouth and as best I could called back, just once – “Whooa!” And went back to bed.