Owls are not like other birds. They hunt at dawn and dusk, in that twilight time when the light is grey and the edges blur. We may only glimpse their silhouettes against the darkening sky, as they soundlessly swoop down from a perch in a tree, or only hear their melancholy calls. An owl encountered in daylight is no less uncanny, as it stares at you intently with piercing eyes that miss nothing and turns its head to follow your every movement. It is no wonder that we have woven owls into our tales and mythologies and imagined them as possessors of great wisdom – even as we have also reviled and killed them for being predators.
Several years ago when I was at university, I was awakened one night by the sound of an owl hooting. Who, who-who, whooo, whooo… I remember lying motionless, waiting in the silent darkness for the call to come again. It did not, and soon I fell back asleep. The next morning, I forgot hearing the calls until I was sitting in my classroom waiting for my first class of the day to begin. As I doodled absent-mindedly in my notebook, the memory of the owl calls abruptly came back to me, yet in the bright light of morning, I no longer felt sure if I had really heard them, or only dreamed it. I even jotted a quick poem about the experience in the margin of my notebook, so that I could remember the experience and the eerie feeling I had, remembering something that I was not sure was a true memory or only a dream.
The owl I heard calling that night was a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), one of the North America’s largest owls and one of the most widespread birds in the western hemisphere. Great Horned Owls, like all owls, are effective predators, with specialized wing feathers that allow them to fly almost silently, eyes at the front of the head for binocular vision and depth perception, an excellent sense of hearing, and a bill and talons designed to grip and tear flesh. They prey on a diversity of animals, including rodents, rabbits, other birds, fish, frogs, and even skunks (as they have a poor sense of smell). Living in a wide range of habitats (from forests to deserts to parks), the Great Horned Owl hunts at dusk and dawn in open areas and along the forest’s edge. Owls cannot move their eyes, which at least partly accounts for their piercing states, and so must turn their heads to look around.
The calls I heard that night had not been a dream, because I would hear them again that winter. Late winter is in fact the time when Great Horned Owls begin their courtship, and likely some of the calls I heard were from a pair of owls calling to each other. Sometimes I thought I could even discern their different voices, one slightly lower-pitched than the other. Great Horned Owls nest earlier than most other birds, and may be incubating eggs as early as February. One day, a student in my physics class spotted an owl sitting in the tree outside the classroom window, and the owl was not alone. Two young owls, covered in fuzzy down feathers, were perched on the branch beside her. Soon, many people knew about the owls and they even became briefly famous, appearing in a live online webcam and on the local television news. Crowds gathered below their nest to view them and take photos. And as spring arrived and the crowds of owl-watchers dispersed, I saw the young owls start to fly short distances and roam away from the nest.
Over the following years, I heard and saw the owls many more times, though whether they were the original pair, their offspring, or different individuals altogether, I of course never knew. Once I saw an owl swooping low over the empty parking lot; another time I saw a pair of owls perched on the science building roof. Never again did the owls achieve such fame as they did that first year, and so they became something that I looked and listened for on my own. I felt that the owls had helped me to become aware of a side of my university campus that few people knew existed, one where marmots burrowed in the bank next to the parking lot, Clark’s nutcrackers ate seeds in the pines, deer strolled below the streetlights, and meadowlarks sang in the early morning. Watching and listening for these sights and sounds never failed to lift my thoughts away from the tedium of studying. And today when I hear an owl hoot, I still feel that same thrill and sense of wonder and awe that I did on that first night, when an owl woke me from sleep and into a greater awareness of the non-humans who share our human world.