Spirits in the night

Great horned owl   Andrea Westmoreland/Flickr

Great horned owl   Andrea Westmoreland/Flickr

In my first house, the signature sound of the evening came from the whip-poor-wills, repeating their names over and over in the mild summer dusk. WHIP-poor-will, WHIP-poor-will, they would call, in a brisk and tireless rhythm.

I thought of them of a piece with the sandy Pine Barrens soil, the oaks and pines, and the tangy scent of bay mud and eel grass in the region around Barnegat Bay.

I’ve missed them since I moved farther north to an inland and more agrarian habitat that apparently isn’t to their liking. But were I still back in Ocean County, the night may well be more silent than I remember since this bird, which nests in leaf litter, has declined with runaway development and the proliferation of feral cats.

Here among the fields and streams of rich river bottomland in Central Jersey, I have a different (and more formidable) spirit in the night – the great horned owl. Deep in the witching hours, this nocturnal hunter haunts the woods behind my house, booming his sonorous hoots into the dark woods.

When I moved here, the acreage behind me was farmed under lease and the abandoned outbuildings and rotting barns of the former homestead still stood. I thought when they were demolished for an upscale golf course development that my owls might head for other neighborhoods, but that never came to pass.

Barn owls might have found a congenial perch in the falling-down barns, but great horned owls are just as happy with a tree hollow or a messy twig nest in a snag, or dead trunk. In fact, great horned owls are common and widely distributed throughout the United States, adapting to farmlands, woods, suburbs and even cities.

Lying in bed, falling asleep or awakened in the small hours by who-knows-what, I hear them conversing: Hoo- HOO- hoo-hoo, and from another quarter, an answering call similar but slightly different in pitch and intonation. Beginning at dusk and on through the night, I hear the comforting sound that tells me I am home and not in some other place with more alarming nocturnal noises.

Of course, I know city folk who relax only with the ceaseless hum of street noise and sirens, people who can’t sleep with August’s roar of katydids and crickets. But I love the natural world’s lullabies, all of them.

Great horned owl   Anne Reeves/Flickr

Great horned owl   Anne Reeves/Flickr

We’re coming up now to the sharp, late autumn evenings when owl song – if you can call it that -- picks up. Great horned owls are the first birds to breed, with eggs in the nest by early February, so November through January is prime owl hooting time. Some of the vocal dueling is to establish territories attractive to females, who in this species are even larger than the males, better than two feet tall with a four-foot wingspan.

The general trend of Western thought has cast the owl as a sinister portent of doom, a harbinger of death and worse. Perhaps that is because they are heard and not seen in the darkness that puts our paltry sense of sight at a disadvantage.

Certainly the owl’s extraordinary vision and keen hearing make him a much-feared predator among mammals as large as raccoons and cats, birds including waterfowl and the whole range of smaller rodents.

An owl can see just fine in light 100 times less than we need to survey our surroundings, can hear the high-pitched noises of a mouse rustling in the underbrush (or even chewing). When he swoops swoop down on silent wings, beak and talons outspread, mice and rabbits should be afraid, very afraid.

There’s another school of thought about the owls, as in “wise old.” They were sacred to the goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athena, the owl-eyed maiden of inner sight, according to Jonathan Even Maslow, whose lovely book “The Owl Papers” (Vintage Books, 1983) I highly recommend.

I’m happy to know my great horned beasties are out there doing their part to curb populations of voles and such, although coming upon a headless rabbit corpse gives me pause about their penchant for fresh brains. These owls also are one of the few predators that will take a skunk, which says terrible things about the likely state of their personal aroma.

Perversely, the mystique of my owls is enhanced by the fact that I have never seen one around my home, by day or by night. The only great horned I’ve laid eyes on was in a nearby park, where it was being mobbed in mid-afternoon by a raucous murder of crows and took flight across a field, hissing like some ancient pterodactyl.

Still, I know I live among them and pretty much every night have half an ear cocked to pick up their lively, deep-throated dialogues. I sleep through cold weather with my bedroom window cracked just to hear their sharp and emphatic hoots, the very voice of the bare, skeletal woods and the hard, cold winter moon.

Deep in my heart, I admire their fierceness and subtlety, their skill and their mystery. Some things you needn’t see to know they are there.