Jim McGuire: Ghost owl

We moderns like to think we’re too enlightened to fear the darkness—too advanced to be spooked by a sound in the night.

Science and intellectual sophistication, we haughtily proclaim, has forever laid to rest such antiquated foolishness.

The truth is we’re but a hair’s-breadth removed from the spirit-filled worlds of yore. Those bumps and moans in the night still have their disquieting power.

Shadows can become shapes; sounds can haunt our dreams and send chills coursing up our spine. Ancient fears continue to abide within, their antennae yet buried deep and probably forever in our DNA—and even under contemporary culture’s thin veneer, they’re still very much alert to omens and portents, ready and waiting to issue their atavistic warnings.

Sometimes all it takes to resurrect this primordial unease is the disconsolate murmuring of a fist-sized bird.

Midnight was fast approaching when I stepped outside and onto the cottage deck for a final look before heading to bed. The air was cool and damp. Ten feet away and a dozen feet below, the Stillwater River’s shiny black ribbon slipped sibilantly along. Above the towering bankside sycamores, the autumn sky was spattered with the scintillating pinpoints of myriad bright stars.

Then I heard the sound.

Whee-e-e-e-o-o-o-o-o-o….”

Soft, low, quavering. Neither moan nor wail, yet a tone from that eerie vein and one which immediately invoked an inveterate response.

Whee-e-e-e-o-o-o-o-o-o….

A tremulous whimper, rising slightly before falling, palpably filling the cloying darkness. I thought of my Irish kin’s fireside tales of banshees, bánánachs, sluaghs, fomorians, the dearg due, oilliphéist and abhartach. An altogether nasty and evil lot of night-roaming entities.

Whee-e-e-e-o-o-o-o-o-o….”

The eerie call repeated—and though I’d recognized the sound-maker’s identity from the get-go, and in spite of myself, I still felt hairs on the back of my neck tingle.

Momentarily spooked by a pint-sized screech owl!

Screech owls are small birds—short-tailed, stocky, with a head as big as their body. A large screech owl might weigh 8 ounces and measure 7–10 inches in length, depending on whether it was hunkered or stretching. Its wingspan could measure two feet. They come in both grayish or rusty-reddish color phases, feathers raggedly mottled. Pointed ear tufts often stick upwards like raised horns. Eyes are large and yellow.

These small owls are voracious. They can eat up to one-third their bodyweight per night. Their diet is the most varied diet of any North American owl. Everything is fair game—from bugs to small birds, bats to bullfrogs, earthworms, spiders, mice, or snakes. If it looks edible and isn’t too big to overcome, a screech owl considers it dinner.

Screech owls are widespread, inhabiting riparian woods, woodlots, brushy farmland fencerows, wetland thickets, golf courses, city parks, even urban backyards.

When I was growing up, most years a pair of screech owls would nest in one of the half-dozen wooden boxes Dad built and installed for squirrels.

In February, a male screech owl would begin hanging around in the backyard maples. He’d call repeatedly during the night, claiming the place as his territory.

A month later an interested female would show up. They then spent several evenings of romantic back-and-forth calling—shuddery exchanges which sounded like courting doppelgängers.

Eventually the female settled into a nest box to begin laying her eggs. The male remained outside and did the hunting—delivering meals to her doorstep. He continued supplying meals for both the female and, later, the young owlets.

The eggs usually hatched in April, though we seldom caught sight of the hatchlings before late-May or early-June. Then, as fledglings, they would begin venturing outside the nest box.

Young screech owls require time to learn and hone their hunting skills. For the next couple of months the fledgling owls and their parents would hang around the general nesting area—though gradually ranging farther afield until that time when they were capable of setting off on their own.

Throughout this entire process—from the beginning of egg laying to the dispersal of the young—those screech owls claimed and defended much of our back yard. And here’s the important thing…owls don’t do warnings!

Inadvertently pass too close to the nest box—day or night—and a watchful owl would swoop down like a spectral wraith and smack you in the head. If you weren’t wearing a hat, that sudden talons-extended hit would leave you bleeding—a painful reminder to not trespass.

By the end of most summers, the top of my head—and likewise those of Mom and Dad and many of my friends—looked a though we’d been pitched headfirst into a briar patch.

However, rather than growing up to dislike screech owls, their plucky defense of home and family made me admire them all the more.

So when I heard that screech owl calling the other night, I smiled, bade him good night—then hustled inside before he decided to smack me in the head for trespassing on his deck.