by Whit Gibbons

June 4, 2006

Last week, in one of my best backyard wildlife adventures ever, I solved two mysteries: the Case of the Baffling Sound and How the Screech Owl Got Its Name. In keeping with the benign nature of these conundrums, my sidekicks were two children and a dog.

The adventure commenced when one of our neighborhood screech owls laid eggs in a wood duck box mounted on an oak tree far away from water. We have encountered such nests in the past, and the excitement of having these nocturnal flying predators in the backyard never wanes. The whinnying sound that screech owls make during mating season is one of the eeriest yet most beautiful night sounds to be heard. I wondered again why we call them “screech” owls.

Springtime is our ally in the continuing effort to convince our grandkids that outdoor adventures are more gratifying than watching television or playing video games. So when the screech owl had babies, I took turns scaling the ladder with Allison and Parker. They marveled at the pair of downy white puffballs that sat in the box, staring back at us with big yellow eyes that were getting larger each day. Allison also noted that there were "sure a lot of redbird feathers in the box.”

The Case of the Baffling Sound began on the dark side of morning when I went to get the newspaper. I heard a soft, four-note sound that resembled a combination of a gentle bark and a muffled cough. My wife heard it also, and we exchanged puzzled glances. Was that really an animal sound right in our front yard that we had not heard before? Carol suggested it might be a young fox barking. With the nearly endless possibilities for outdoor experiences, none of us will ever encounter all natural phenomena; so, okay, maybe a young gray fox makes a funny little sound like that.

At about the same time the next morning, our dog, Gilbey, went berserk trying to get on the back porch where raccoons were finishing off the food in his dish. They do this often, always outsmarting Gilbey by disappearing up a tree before he can figure out where they went. While I watched him perform his Deputy Dawg routine, sniffing and snuffling in his efforts to find a coon in the shrubbery, I heard the mystery sound again. No mistaking it: somewhere in the backyard, clearly an intentionally made four-note sound, a sound with purpose.

All the pieces came together at dusk. Allison and I were watching the nest box as one of the baby owls peered out, seemingly ready to launch itself. At the instant the first baby owl left the box and flew past us, two startling sounds came from the bush next to my head. First came a crashing of branches followed by a loud screech, only inches away. Before I could react, I felt a puff of wind across my face as an adult owl circled my head and disappeared into the darkness. Then the woods were quiet—until a moment later when we heard the four-note sound, clearly a mother screech owl telling her fledgling baby, "Danger lurks. Don’t move."

The next day, I heard wrens and titmice fussing and eventually the tell-tale confirmation of a raucous, squawking blue jay warning of an intruder. Allison, Parker, and I went to investigate. As we approached I tried to see where different birds were looking in order to triangulate on whatever they were annoyed at. Finally, I found the interloper, or rather interlopers. One was a baby screech owl, perched atop a cherry laurel tree, looking like a round ball of cotton and paying no attention to the agitated birds in the surrounding branches. The other was an adult screech owl, the gray phase, sitting on a low branch. Its ear tufts pointed skyward; its countenance was as fierce and regal as an African death mask. The owl seemed supremely confident, ignoring the troubled gathering of birds. Didn’t seem much bothered by three humans watching either. But I felt smug, too. I had solved two mysteries: how the screech owl got its name and how it tells its babies to be careful.

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