The call came during dinner with friends on the porch, as dusk was blanketing us. Do you hear that? It spooks some people at first, but I love it. I delight in being able to share this night mystery. Sometimes the call comes as I’m reading before bed. It floats into the room, mixing with the story I’m reading, a new character begging to be heard. I am always enchanted. I don’t just smile; I feel like a kid again. Something stirs inside me, a vestigial of childhood questions reminding my soul there are still wonders to discover. Who’s calling? Megascops asio, the Eastern Screech Owl.
I think of a screech as an unpleasant sound. A tire squeals and we cringe, expecting a crash of metal. Fingernails scraping on a chalkboard make us shiver reflexively. I’ve never heard our screech owls screech. They most commonly make a trill sound that reminds me of a sad horse whinny. I don’t know if horses can sound sad, but this is what comes to my mind. You can hear screech owl sounds on this Cornell Lab of Ornithology link: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Screech-Owl/sounds
It makes sense that the owl got its name for a reason and most likely a screech sound is an alarm call. The bottom of the following link has more vocalizations, including one labeled as a screech. It is screech-like, though I’d call it more of a wail. http://www.theowlfoundation.ca/SpeciesInfo/specieseaso.htm
Screech owls are small birds. Adults are only 6-9 inches tall, and this is when they stand tall, all stretched out. They are nocturnal and crepuscular in habit – I often hear them in the morning around 7 am. These traits make them hard to notice; I only know they live at Halcyon because of their calls. I have seen screech owls up close, and fed them, when I volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation center in New Jersey. They are incredibly cute, yet are reported to be fierce hunters. They were the most common bird of prey visitor at the wildlife center because, when hunting along roadsides, cars frequently hit them. Mice have learned that trash, often containing food leftovers, can be found alongside roads. In turn, owls have learned that roadsides are a good place to hunt. That is, until a car approaches. Owls whose eyesight is damaged or who are unable to fly again cannot be released back into the wild. I am reminded of those owls living the rest of their days in a cage whenever I see litter, and I’ve taught my kids that even something as benign as an apple should not be thrown out car windows.
Tossing an apple to the side of the road seems harmless. It is easy to not anticipate all the ramifications of a single action. I wonder how many species I harm inadvertently in my daily actions at Halcyon – I know I harm the grasshoppers I feed to the chickens, but this is purposeful – and I wonder how many species I might help instead. I understand my actions can be both harmful and helpful in general, but I’d like to recognize the chain of events that follow a single act. I suppose these events are not scripted any more than our lives are scripted, and there isn’t one constant chain of events that happens for any one action. There have been several grasshoppers this week that just happened to be at the right place at the wrong time.
My family cleans up a mile-long stretch of our road every year for our county’s annual trash pick-up day. I quietly curse the nature of a person who can litter with no compunctions. I wouldn’t come to their house and leave a mess. I assume they don’t think about mice or screech owls when they litter any more than they think about the person who owns the property they’ve just ‘trashed’. I assume they just think about themselves, or worse, they don’t think at all. I however, don’t just think about how the road looks prettier for me as I clean it up. I think about how it is safer for owls and other small animals, and how I’ve helped mitigate my daily harm to the environment, one small act at a time. I eagerly await the call of my small, elusive neighbors each night.