Didn't get into the woods today until afternoon. It was raining all morning, but stopped long enough that we walked on silent, damp leaves in a forest dripping with raindrops and saturated in green. As we walked, the first thing that I heard was a gathering of crows, somewhere to the south, and not too far off, maybe a couple hundred yards. They were kicking up a real fuss and I guessed that they had spotted a hawk or owl and were doing their usual, "Hey, get outta my WORLD!!!!!", kind of histrionics. As a species, crows seem inclined to be noisy most of the time, but, when they discover what they consider to be a threat, the volume and frequency approaches 'cacophony'.
As we kept on walking, a few crows flew directly overhead, but didn't notice us beneath the canopy of beech and birch leaves. Just about two minutes later, as we turned down one of our favorite trails, I head the distinctive call of a Barred Owl. Birders like to describe it as: "Who! Who cooks for you? Who, who cooks for you all?" And, actually, that is a pretty good descriptor of the rhythm and the cadence of their call. But, the actual sound of it, the volume and tone, make the hair on the back of my neck stand-up. It has a deep and haunting quality that just says, "Welcome to MY woods. Who are you again?" I can imitate it well enough to fool one on occasion.
A couple of years ago, I heard one in the woods behind our home. So, what the hell, give it a shot, I thought. I was soon rewarded by the sight--without any audible noise attendant--of a very large, mottled bird landing in the lower branches of an ash tree, right on the edge of our yard. And, seconds later, it was joined by a second owl. I was awestruck. They sat there looking at me, and not making a sound. I had the temerity to 'hoot' again, and the closest owl took off and circled over the back yard and directly past me, landing in an oak not twenty yards away. He was curious. Who would have the nerve to call him out like that? He obviously knew I was there, despite my standing stock still. He just wanted a closer look at the fool who thought he could pretend to be one of his species.
Barred Owls are big, very big, only slightly smaller than the Great Horned Owl, and if one were sitting on your gloved hand--as I have experienced--he or she would be tall enough to look you in the eye. Of course, their owlish stare is a marvel in itself. They actually cannot roll their eyes, they have to move their head to aim where they are looking. This is thought to be because their eyeballs are so very large that articulating them would be tough...even for evolution. Their eyes--all owls--are low-light marvels, and their hearing is stunningly acute and directional. Even the feathers that form that peculiar 'owlish' moon of a face are performing a function in channeling sound so an owl can tell precisely what direction it came from. Their feathers have a very soft fringe on them....so an owl can glide down in complete silence as it swoops on its prey.
I walked down to my knife-shop one winter morning, some years back....I think I might even have had hair then...and there, on the new fallen snow, was a set of mouse tracks, hopping along: ba-deep, ba-deep, ba-deep...........and then, POOF!!! disappearing, into thin air. The explanation was also very clear: on the soft whiteness, a full foot away on either side, were the perfect impressions of the primary flight feathers of an owl. Wee mousie never heard it's doom approaching in the moonlight.
So, the next time you are outside at night, and you hear that distinctive hoot off in the distance, recall that there is one more of Mother Natures perfect and amazing creatures out there. The Barred Owl.