“When the owl sings, the night is silent.” ~ Charles de Leusse
We heard an owl last night. It’s the first time I’ve heard a great horned owl in the year and a half we have lived here on this wooded ravine. Last January, in that moment just before darkness, I happened to be outside and looked up as one winged silently overhead through the powdery pink dusk, headed out for an evening of hunting. Perhaps hunting for a meal, or a mate, or both. These magnificent birds choose their mates early in the dawning year. When we lived on the farm, at the end of one February day, I was beside myself with excitement when a pair swept over the barnyard, off to the distant woods. On summer nights, owls screamed and called to each other from the treetops for hours on end, sending the dogs into paroxysms of barking. One March, we were so excited to have a long-eared owl in the pines behind the barn.
Yet, although I had seen Bubo virginianus here, I had yet to hear one until last night when Tim came in from taking the dog out for his “last call.”
“Hey, I just heard an owl,” he said, knowing how much it would mean to me.
I leapt out of my chair and leaving the back yard light off, we stepped out into the brittle cold night to listen. Sure enough, soft and low, there it was. Later, before I went to bed, I went out again, but heard only the sounds of a winter’s night – a creaking branch, a scuttling dry leaf. In the late summer and early fall, when it’s still balmy all night long, it’s not unusual to hear the quaver-y trill of screech owls calling to each other through the dusk.
Occasionally, I look around the bases of trees, thinking I might find an owl pellet or two, a sure way to know that an owl has had a meal. Our backyard is a perfect owl hunting ground. Open in the middle and surrounded by tall trees, small mammals scurrying across would be easy to spot. I have to cringe a bit, when I think about the fate of the mouse or vole, but I know it’s the way it has to be.
Not everyone welcomes owls with the same enthusiasm I do. Our little grandson has developed a sort of wariness about owls. He knows they go “hoot hoot,” but when I visited with him this morning and told him that we had heard one at our house, he took a step back, and with a worried expression, pointed out the window. I hurriedly reassured him that it had been at our house, and was not waiting in the trees outside his house.
We think of the winter months as lifeless, dark, and still, especially when the temperature plunges and snow covers the iron ground. But, for many forms of wildlife, this is their most active season. The local groundhog family is snoozing, most likely under our garden shed and those of our neighbors, and skunks and raccoons are not very active now. But, Mr. Opossum still rambles around at night, finishing off the few seeds scattered under the feeders and availing himself of occasional vegetable parings on the compost heap.
During the day, chickadees, finches, titmice and nuthatches are waiting for me when I go out to fill the feeders. Several varieties of woodpeckers visit the suet cages. And, although the feisty little red squirrels and chipmunks are burrowed up for these coldest days, grey squirrels and fox squirrels are very active. I can hear them skittering up and down trees clear on the other side of the ravine. After spending the night tucked up in their leafy nests high in the treetops, they are waiting for food, and I wonder if they are organized enough to assign scouts to signal to the rest when breakfast is served. They are plump and glossy, and our kids claim our squirrels are the only ones they have ever seen with neck rolls.
We flip the back floodlight on at night and peer through the curtains. Often we are rewarded by the sight of a buck at the edge between the yard and the woods. Deer become more active during the day now. I often see them on the hillside across the way in the mornings when I first go out, but it is usually afternoon when they come seeking food. We have a squirrel proof sunflower seed feeder that one doe works like a gumball machine. She is more than welcome to munch on the grains I put in the ground feeder, but I tap the window to warn her away from that feeder. When deer have been around, I usually go out in late afternoon and scatter some mixed seed on the ground for the cardinals who come when it’s just about dark.
We keep a heated ground bird bath and there is something gratifying about watching the wild folk get a drink of fresh water when all other sources are frozen. Such a small thing to provide, and the reward is the ever changing show outside our windows.