October 8, 2009
Eastern Screech-Owl
Eastern Screech-Owl
There were two messages on the answering machine that morning, over a decade ago.  Both from my mother back in the Midwest.  Only minutes apart, their sequence sent my world tumbling down and my thoughts seeking some purchase in Native American belief systems and their connection to nature.  In the first message her voice was animated and full of wonder--Jim, an owl came to my windowsill last night after dark.  A little owl!

This could only have been an Eastern Screech-Owl.  Similar in size and lifestyle to the Western Screech-Owl found here in Arizona, Eastern Screeches are dimorphic, with both a gray and a red color phase.  This eastern version of the screech owl is found from the Great Plains eastward to the Atlantic coast, inhabiting every state except Maine and a broad ecological niche which includes forests, riparian streambeds, urban woodlots, and even nestboxes.

Screech owls are known as the "little wildcats of the night," miniature killing machines, scaled down versions of our Great Horned Owl.  They will take anything up to and sometimes greater than their own size, which is American Robin size.  In eastern urban areas, as here in The Valley, screech owls are the most common owl, though they are heard more often than seen because they are strictly nocturnal.

The nocturnal vocals of the Eastern Screech-Owl, once heard, will not soon be forgotten.  The most common, a mournful, quavering, softly descending tremolo, is the stuff of nightmares, and gray and red morph birds are known to mate.  Imagine the mindset of the first time observer of such a pair until both are seen together.  The spooky calls and the apparently changeling nature of a dimorphic pair have only added to the "other" owl literature, the non-scientific myths and legends full of allusions to darkness and death.

The allure of owling for most birders is the adrenaline rush that comes from listening, seeking the unknown, in night dark depths of the forest, the prospects of hearing the strange, sad, other worldly song without seeing the singer or the singer's sudden appearance before them without wingsound.

It is easy to understand why the Eastern Screech-Owl played large in Native American lore.  For some tribes the screech owl was a harbinger of ill health or defeat in battle.  For these and others a dream of the bird or a visit by the bird meant elaborate purifying rituals with the tribal shaman.  Some knew the screech owl as the agent of death, materializing as it often did from the blackness of night, an escort for the soul as it were, from the light into the darkness.

In the second message her tone had changed dramatically, now despondent and full of foreboding--Jim, the oncologist called this morning.  He says there's really nothing more they can do.

This October column is the fourth anniversary of Bird Is A Verb.  This week also marks the anniversaries of my wife's birth and my mother's death.  On the same day.  This is a personal coincidence lying outside the realm of human understanding.  On that anniversary night I will subscribe to myth and legend.  On that night I will inhabit a dark place.  Listening.  Seeking signs.