What is it that captivates me about owls? Is it that some begin their mating calls in late January? Or, is it the eerie way their call breaks the chill of a cold winter night? I am not sure, but all my life I have been compelled to look for the ever-elusive owl.
On my many winter night walks, I look at the night sky uninhibited by city lights and wonder at the glittering stars above. Velvet darkness enveloped by a shattering of sparkling diamonds. How far away are they? Somber trees stretch toward the moon firmly rooted to the Earth, never quite reaching what gnarled naked fingers yearn to touch. The chilled silence is broken by a solitary, lonesome call, “Whoo.”
“Who,” indeed. Who hears this call? Who will respond? Who is also lonely on this cold night? Barred owls are prevalent in these forests. They search for a mate as breeding season approaches. One may have a cavity nest already chosen, hidden in a large tree. Three - Four, nearly perfectly round white eggs will lie within the warm confines of a tree’s inner bark. The female will incubate the eggs, while the male dotes on her bringing her meals. (Women could be so lucky while incubating their young.)
“Whoo,” the lonely call breaks into my thoughts, as cold breath escapes my mouth. I stop and listen. In the distance, I hear a response, “Whoo.” Ahh, another lonesome soul; the serenade will surely begin now. Slowly, I begin to walk albeit quietly on the crunching snow. I glance at my husband beside me and he begins to walk more quietly, too. He knows I listen to the owls. I do not want to miss the owl music that is about to begin. After a while, “Who cooks for you, Who cooks for you all.” The barred owl calls in full-throated regalia! Music to my ears! The response call is returned, “Who cooks for you, Who cooks for you all.” Then, the "hoo-hoo, hoo-WAAAHH" and "hoo-WAAAHHH" calls begin; these are used in courtship. Delight fills my chill-red face! Goosebumps run down my arms, not from the cold, but from the sound of the owls.
Maybe this is why I like the owls. When much of the bird world is quite, reserving their energy to stay warm, the owls continue to call. They fill the dark nights with music, a forest melody, chasing away the chills. When winter blues seem to settle in the bones, a tendency for loneliness, depression, and solitude can seemingly overwhelm. But, the sight and sound of the owl reminds us that life is ever-present and new life is coming.
We stand and listen to the owls calling to each other. Their courtship calls so beautiful. Each call a timeless note that has been sung for centuries, passed from generation to generation; now sung with perfection. We turn and begin to walk back. We hear in another direction, “Whoo?” I take my husband’s hand and my January heart is warmed.
-- Lynn Youngblood is the Executive Director of the Blue River Watershed Association; a certified Residential Energy Client Service Coordinator by the National Energy Retrofit Institute; and a former nature center manager with the Missouri Department of Conservation.