One early mid-spring evening this year, my father and I stood on the backyard deck, chatting as he prepared dinner on the BBQ. In the background, I heard only a few birds at this hour. Robins whinnied. Grackles croaked and squeaked. Goldfinches flew above: “per-chick-o-ree.” The wren warbled to claim the wren box – second day in a row. I told my father I’d cleaned the box of the old nest just in time.
Backyard birdwatching is barely challenging. I see the same birds every day, if not nearly every day. All I need is just one note of a song or call to know immediately what birds are around. ID’ing by jizz from the corner of my eye – easy. After I got to know “my” birds, I know when I spot something different. Brown Thrasher. Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Yellow-bellied cuckoo.
It hooted from beyond the backyard border, somewhere in the crowd of deciduous trees. It sounded like it came from the next cul-de-sac over. The owl didn’t hoot its whole phrase, commonly translated with the mnemonic “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” More like: “Who who who who who who who cooks for youuuuuuuu?”
I was dumbfounded. Was that real? Yes, that is a Barred Owl very close to you. You are hearing it.
I had only seen a Barred Owl once, more than a year and a half ago, at a local Audubon sanctuary. It was perched in a tree about twenty feet away from the trail. Smaller than I expected. It had the typical plumage: gently gray with brown streaks on its head, breast, and back. Mottled wings. In all, it was round and very soft-looking. This was the third-largest owl in North America. Noiseless. Unnervingly awesome. After a few minutes, it disappeared into the thick green.
The first and last time I heard any owls in my neighborhood was that past winter. A pair of Great Horned Owls hooted to each other at 1:00AM. Before that, nothing.
What made this moment especially rapturous was that a Barred Owl – my favorite owl – was calling near where I lived. Additionally, I was not hearing a recording.
“DAD, it’s a BARRED OWL.”
My father, not a birdwatcher, wouldn’t have known to hear for it if I hadn’t said anything. He listened more carefully.
“Who who who who who who who cooks for youuuuuuuu?”
“MOM, get out here. THERE’S BARRED OWL IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD.”
My mother (also not a birdwatcher, but a little interested in feeding backyard birds) came to the back door. She expressed skepticism. A couple years ago, she watched Cornell’s Barred Owl cam and grew attached to the nestlings. After two weeks of being born, they looked like white fluffballs. Even their legs had fluff, looking like pantaloons. She also liked mother owl’s large and fluffy appearance.
I told her to listen, but the owl didn’t call again.
I gushed to my father about the owl, my history with it, how I was so surprised to hear one in this neighborhood. (I thought they restricted themselves to forest.) Then I heard from behind me:
“WHO COOKS FOR YOU ALL.”
It was the famous mnemonic. I whipped around. My mother was playing a recording from – of all places – Cornell’s All About Birds.
“Who who who who who who who cooks for youuuuuuuu?” the real owl responded.
I scolded my mother for doing that. I was worried that the owl would think that there would be another so close that it would think it was trespassing, and then leave.
I didn’t hear the Barred Owl call again. My mother apologized, knowing how much I loved Barred Owls. I was upset at first – who knows how much longer it could have stuck around on its own? I was also surprised that the recording scared off the owl after only being played once. In any case, I was content to hear one at all. I considered it one of the best birding experiences.
After dinner, I stood on the deck enjoying sunset sky and the cool air. I heard a crowd of whining grackles and yeeping robins from the same direction I had heard the owl. I’d been hearing them since dinnertime. It is classic for songbirds to mob perched owls and hawks until they left the area, but I didn’t note it. I resigned the Barred Owl was gone for good. I might as well take what I could get.
Then – as I happened to be facing the right direction – the owl and a number of grackles glided over my backyard and a neighbor’s house. They landed in one of the Norway Maples lining the edge of front lawns by the street. The grackles and robins’ scolding intensified.
I dashed for my binoculars and went to find the owl. I followed the screeching and the yeeping. In total, there were more than twenty grackles, at least a dozen robins, and two Blue Jays. Binoculars poised, head up, I slowly walked up the street. The leaves were already large. I wasn’t looking for a warbler, but I wondered if I would have much trouble finding the owl.
It found me first.
I could see the Barred Own clearly. Not a branch and leaf obscured it. As grackles and robins swirled around it, flying from branch to branch, jabbering deafeningly, the owl had its eyes only on me. Large and round, pitch black, beady. I stared back. Birds have regarded my presence before – a mother Killdeer, a migrating Blue-headed Vireo, a resting Red-tail. Not like this. Still and silent, the owl kept a continuous gaze on me. I was aware of the ongoing harassment and the downy softness of its chest, and that the back of my neck already hurt a little from craning neck – but its eyes filled my vision. They were all I could look at. They dove past my face, into my physical self, past my very being. It knew me.
I guessed more than a minute had gone by when a grackle suddenly collided with the owl, bursting the belly fluff. This greatly annoyed the owl and it looked away. After a couple seconds, it resumed gazing at me. But when more grackles began to be just as daring, hitting the owl as they darted by, the owl had enough. It hopped to another branch, wings sounding a great flutter. It still wanted to keep to looking at me, but the grackles and robins finally got under its skin. The harassment wouldn’t fully stop until it was far away from their territory. It hopped to a higher branch, then to another. Then it took off.
The mob followed it. I guessed the owl flew to a tree somewhere at the entrance of my street – as I could tell by still hearing the excitement – but I went home. I had enough.