Recently I’ve been privileged to hear owls hooting in the night.
I have no data, but it seems there were far more owls here ten or fifteen years ago than in the past few years. Once, I enjoyed listening their hooting regularly. Lately, it’s rare. I’ve missed it.
Maybe they’re back.
This morning I was up early and thought I’d record the birds singing in the dawn. When I stepped outside (keeping the dogs inside so the recording wasn’t overwhelmed with their panting), I heard owls hooting up slope. It’s faint, but you can hear the Whoooo, whoo-whoo of their calls in this recording, with red-winged blackbirds, flickers, robins and who knows what other birds ushering in the new day with their songs in the foreground. (I’m just starting to learn to recognize various local bird songs.)
One spring – Memorial Day weekend in 2011 – I was walking through the forest not far from the house. I was lost in thought while keeping an eye on my three dogs (Finn and Conall’s predecessors, two female Malamutes named Maia and Meadow). We walked along an old dirt logging road that cuts across a fairly steep slope while meandering in and out around the contours of the mountain.
Suddenly movement just up slope caught our attention. All three dogs and I stopped and watched, transfixed, as two great horned owls swooped out of the trees up hill of us, flew across the dirt road just in front of us, and disappeared as they wove effortlessly through the trees below us until out of sight. Their “horns” – actually short tufts of feathers – were clearly visible, identifying them as great horned owls.
The fir and pine trees in this spot are large and grow close together, with lots of wide branches. According to the National Wildlife Federation, the wingspan of a great horned owl is 4.6 feet. That’s almost as wide as I am tall! (I’m 5’4″.) Their ability to navigate flawlessly through close-growing trees and branches at such speed took my breath away.
Nor did they make a sound as they flew past, one to the side and slightly behind the other.
Ravens, crows, geese, red-tail hawks, all make some degree of whooshing sound when flying, whether gliding or flapping. These owls are truly silent fliers. No wonder they’re such good hunters.
I knew in that moment that I had been allowed to witness something special since they primarily hunt at night.
If there’s reincarnation and I can’t come back as a wolf, the great horned owl might be my second choice.
Wanting to verify that the hoots I’m hearing at night are indeed great horned owls, I did some research. I found a video on YouTube called Owls of North America and their Calls. It verified what I hoped. The greats are back.
As I was watching the video, listening to the various owl calls, my dogs were snoozing nearby on the floor. I wondered whether the sound of the birds – especially those owls that screech loudly rather than hoot – would pique their interest. Nope. They didn’t even lift their heads off the floor.
But then, in the background of one of the owl call segments, there was the brief, faint bugle of an elk.
OMG, dog alert! They jumped to their feet and made a dash for the dog door, sure there must be elk just beyond their fence.
There weren’t, of course. Although, ironically, coming up the road toward home yesterday two elk crossed in front of us, moving from one pasture to another, jumping over the barbed-wire fences. I see plenty of white-tailed deer here, but fewer elk, so that was a pleasant surprise. The boys watched them intently from inside my car.
The boys’ reaction to the elk bugle in the owl video reminded me the time Conall howled from the deck, near sunset, in response to the high-pitched elk bugling down the hill in the same pasture where we saw the two elk yesterday.
Talk about instinctual response! Animal communication – call, response – never ceases to amaze and entertain me. I may not fully understand what’s being communicated, but I can enjoy it. (Side note: editing and previewing this post, when this above video played the boys again dashed out the dog door, sure elk were nearby!)
While Conall offers his wolf-like howl in response to elk bugles and the yips of coyotes, he also howls when small civil airplanes and Forest Service helicopters fly overhead. Quirky, that, and a bit off kilter from nature’s usual call-and-responses. My earlier Malamutes always howled to urban fire and police sirens, though. Never understood why but it was fun to watch and hear. I guess because Conall has spent all his life in rural Idaho where sirens are few and far between, low-flying airplanes will have to do. (Please excuse the dirty windows and screen door.)
And just for grins, a video of Conall as a pup – five months old – trying out his “talking” skills (with some encouragement from me).
I rely on Conall’s keen senses of hearing and smell, his ability to interpret the sounds and scents of wildlife around us that are beyond my ability to sense. It all came naturally to him; I didn’t teach him a thing. Watching his body language as he listens and smells, then keying into his responses – howls, barks, growls or uneasy silence – lets me know instantly what’s nearby and whether to be concerned. It’s a symbiotic relationship that keeps us both safe (and Finn, too).
What I’d love to know is: What do the wildlife think of Conall’s howls and woofs?