SPIRITS OF THE FOREST: Owls and Other Creatures of the Night

Dr. Lorin Swinehart



As was frequently my habit, I had hiked solo deep into the forest late in the afternoon, kindled a crackling campfire, grilled a small rib eye and set a pot of lapsangsouchong tea to boil. With the coming of night, flying squirrels flitted among cedar and hemlock. A friendly brown bat flapped from his lair beneath the roots of a large maple, passing within inches of my head. From woodland puddles and marshes, the tiny spring frogs we call peepers began to serenade the heavens.

From time to time, I entered the forest in search of silence and solitude, vital to the health of mind and soul.  The forest never failed me. Once one escapes the noisy two-legged animal, though, he learns that nature can be anything but silent. I tell people that I periodically escape into nature simply in order to listen. Most do not get it. A precious few do.

A screech owl keened away with its banshee-like call and was immediately answered by the frenzied gobbling of three flocks of wild turkeys scattered across the forest floor. A great horned owl joined in with his, “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!” Each hoot was answered by another owl far out among the darkened treetops. The turkeys answered both of them with desperate gobbling.

Tall clouds formed in the west, drifted my way, an April shower to dampen my campfire and dampen me. I was never one to be discouraged by rain. I was in the woods for the duration, and I found the conversation between the owls and the turkeys absorbing.

Each rumble of thunder inspired more turkey gobbling. Ornithologists refer to the phenomenon as shock gobbling. Wild turkeys must consider not only owls but thunder and lightening as menaces. Owl talk and turkey talk.  I considered myself privileged to be included in their conversation.

A piercing shriek pierced the rain soaked night.  Mr. Horned Owl was having rabbit for his late meal.  I considered that owls might also love flying squirrel, wondered if they ate brown bat. I was not there as a critic or a judge, only as a visitor in the owls’ domain.

Owls have prowled the night skies for 67,000,000 years, according to Leigh Calvez’s new book The Hidden Lives of Owls, a Christmas gift from which I have gleaned a wealth of information.  The words “howl” and “owl” may stem from the same linguistic origin deep in the pre-history of human language evolution, farther back in the mists of time than Proto-Indo-European, even than the hypothetical Nostratic or Proto-World. The Old English word for owl is “ule,” the Latin word is “ulula.” Owls populate our mythologies, were considered bearers of good fortune by some early peoples, harbingers of evil and death by others.

The Greeks associated the owl with Athena, goddess of wisdom.  The ancient Maya considered the owl to be a sign of good fortune. A Mayan owl amulet was worn upside down, so as to stare upward at the person under its protection. To the Navaho, Owl and Coyote control night and day.

Owls are unique in the avian kingdom in many ways. Owl eyes have more black and white connecting rods, providing them with superior night vision. Their eyes are also tubular.  As compensation, they are able to turn their heads 270 degrees, providing them with a wide perimeter of vision. Their facial feathers provide a sort of satellite dish that funnels sound into their ears.  Owl ears are asymmetrical, so that they can locate prey in three dimensions.

Even the toes of owls stand out among those of all other bird species.  Two toes on each foot point backward, one forward, and one can point either way, a huge advantage when grasping prey. 

There are 225 species of owls globally and 417 subspecies. I seldom see them but often listen in on their conversations.

Owls do not have it easy. Many meet their demise when colliding with speeding motor vehicles. Others die from secondary poisoning from rodenticides ingested by their prey. A few fall victims to the guns of farmers who fail to recognize that the numbers of rodents an owl consumes in a year’s time more than compensates for an occasional lost chicken.

Long after the rain had ceased and the skies had cleared, I doused my fire with spring water and hiked out in the most magical of ways, by starlight. There had been no moon, and I would not violate the sanctity of the forest or the darkness with a flashlight or lantern. Halfway down a nearby horse trail, I became conscious of a strange rumbling on the ridge to my left. I halted, waited in silence, made out the silhouettes of a herd of white tailed deer treading along parallel to me, curious about this visitor to their forest home.

I was to return many times, sometimes accompanied by great spirits, often solo. The forest is a friend, always waiting with open arms, offering surcease to tired spirits. I have long been on friendly terms with the creatures of the night.


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