Late on a recent night — when a sensible fellow would be tucked in bed — I donned the expedition-weight down-filled parka purchased decades ago on the unlikely possibility of a mid-winter Antarctica visit. Thus bundled, I deserted the woodstove’s cozy warmth and stepped into the winter darkness outside.
February’s waxing Snow Moon was on the rise, flooding the snow-covered ground and the woods across from the cottage with pale silver light. A few yards from where I stood, the Stillwater slipped steadily along — a swirling, ebony ribbon reflecting scintillating highlights from the star-spattered sky.
It was cold, somewhere in the single digits. I snuggled deeper into my protective coat.
Suddenly, from somewhere not too far downstream, came the eerie, interlocutory hoot of a great horned owl:
“Who? Who? Who-o-o-o-o?”
The sound seemed to float through the chilled darkness. I felt the hint of an involuntary shiver crawl down my spine, as the hairs on the back of my scalp made to rise.
Again the owl called…and from the streamside woods across and upstream, a second voice answered:
Owls are as much a voice of winter nights as the moan of wind and the crackle of ice. Their voice is as forlorn as the season itself. An ancient muttering from the season’s impenetrable shadows, perhaps finding its impetus in the spirit of Boreas, that old Greek god of winter and the north wind.
Moreover, for centuries, owls have carried a reputation as bearers of bad tidings.
Pliny the Elder wrote that when an owl appears “it foretells nothing but evil, to be more dreaded than any other bird.”
Lilith, the dark Sumerian goddess of the underworld — whose name means “of the night” — was given owl-like features of wings and talons. She’s mentioned in the Bible, in Isaiah, where a verse speaks of earth’s eventual desolation and those forsaken creatures which rest among the ruins.
Cultures the world over have long taught that owls were harbingers of death. For millennia, as men huddled round a winter’s fire, telling tales and looking fearfully into the night, it was said that to hear the owl’s call was an omen of impending death. Margaret Craven wove her bestselling book, ‘I Heard the Owl Call My Name,‘ around this legend, as told through the tribal stories of the Indian peoples of the Pacific Northwest.
Mere superstition? Quaint folklore? Or were those malevolent birds somehow putting a hex on me—marking my life?
I didn’t think so.
The language of owls is the mother tongue of a mid-winter Ohio night — a shivery call of dominion and knowledge, an articulation of nocturnal mystery, and one shared by the howls of northcountry wolf-song.
Yet as spooky as a hooting owl might sound, my guess is those birds now exchanging what some might mistake as dire laments and impending doom were more likely speaking of domesticity. Their hoots were of procreation.
Great horned owls begin their pre-nesting nuptials early, soon after the first of the year. They may actually be on the nest by the end of this month — and have young owlets hatched come early March.
I’ve seen great horned nests built in suitable cavities in sycamores and beeches, and on the high stump of a storm-blasted oak. And I’ve watched and photographed a mother owl sitting atop her clutch while a winter storm ruffled her snowflake-covered feathers.
It’s an unlikely sight, more than a bit disturbing. But one which plainly reveals the tenacity of this large predator.
Moonlight poured across the moving water like light spilled from a pitcher. The chill had now pervaded my layers of clothing — even the fluffy parka.
Still, the streamside owls kept on with their inquiries.
“Who? Whoo? Whoo-oo?”
The eternal owl question — and I suppose a fair one. However, I declined to answer. If they really wanted to know — they’d have to identify me on their own.
Reach Jim McGuire at [email protected] Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.