Owls bring the night in.

In the late fall I was sitting here at my desktop after dark when I heard an owl in my back yard. I knew it was an owl because he sounded just like the ones in the movies. I don’t think I had encountered one in person ever.

But I didn’t know what species he might be. I spent a good hour listening to various owls on Cornell University’s site All About Birds site, and the owl cooperated by demonstrating his distinctive call many times. He came another night not long afterward. For a while that first night I thought perhaps he was a Barred Owl, but eventually I knew for sure that he was a Great Horned Owl.

In my research I found advice about how to build a platform for this owl to nest on, how high up to attach it, and that it should go up in November so that the owls might find it when they go looking for good nesting sites in February. I did wish that I could start on one more project like that, but it was obviously not the right thing for me this year.

Probably everyone has more familiarity with owls than I do, but if you’d like to hear the calls of five owls this is a helpful Audubon page that limits itself to just that many: Identify Five Owls

You can guess how honored I felt that such a creature had visited me, even if he couldn’t be seen. His voice seemed full of romance, and let me in on the secret drama of the night. Of the five owls on the linked page, his call is surely the most pleasing, low and soft. So many owls are screechy.

Richard Wilbur wrote a poem about an owl’s voice. His own voice is more pleasant to me than that of the Barred Owl that he writes about; maybe that’s why someone came up with the explanation for a child, and why I like his poem so much. You can listen to him reading it: here.


The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

-Richard Wilbur,  from Mayflies: New Poems and Translations. © 2000

18 thoughts on “Owls bring the night in.

  1. I love the poem, I love you sharing your experience with the great horned owl, and I love listening to Richard Wilbur. Poetry emboldens us. What a great thought. That it does, that it does.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I remember the first time I heard a Great Horned owl. It was at the farm I sold a few years ago. You kind of need to be up very late, so maybe that’s why we don’t hear them often. It is a very mysterious and exciting experience. My other favorite night time sound is the “scream” of a fox. I experienced that about the same time as the owl. So much is going on in the woods! Just this year I heard a whippoorwill for the first time. I knew it right away when it said its name so clearly. I hope your owl stays around to entertain you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I know practically nothing about owls, apart from having seen one once. But I do think you were “chosen” — a safe place but also one with potential prey. I should think it would be a most remarkable sight.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In our town they have been installing owl boxes in the park (the one where I have wanted to take you walking) to “control” the rodent population. There are also weasels in the park but I have only seen one. He had a very beguiling face but they have a reputation of being anything but sweet.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. . . . but I am moved by the sounds you refer to, including these recordings. The sounds in the poem are pleasing too, as they evoke both a presence and a mood. Those last three lines are pleasing as well, but in a different, rather startling way: they make it hard for me to completely romanticize nature. Human nature too (left alone, I mean), considering what we share with the owl and other raptors.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What you say makes me notice the contrast between the reference to cooking that the owl is said to be hooting, and the fact that he eats his own food raw. It is a very effective ending to the poem. The fact that I can feel romantic about the owl shows that I am not a child, so I know that the owl won’t eat me; but also I think is because of listening to Psalm 103 in Vespers all these years, especially these lines:

      “Thou appointedst the darkness,
      and there was the night, wherein all the
      beasts of the forest will go abroad.
      Young lions roaring after their prey, and
      seeking their food from God.”

      Both the fact that God appointed the darkness/night and that the lions seeking their prey — sometimes humans, even! — are presented as just one more aspect of the glory of Creation, have affected my imagination. I don’t often go out in the dark alone, but when I do, I try to think of this. There are no lions where I walk at night, so don’t worry. 🙂

      It seems somehow related, what I heard about C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy (have you read it?), that he did not want it to be titled that. He thought that the term (outer) space sounded too austere and vacant, and preferred “Deep Heaven,” which better reflects the reality that it is rich and full of the presence of God.

      Thank you for your comments, which so often make me go deeper.


      1. I have read so many good things about C.S. Lewis, and feel that I understand and agree with his ideas, but somehow I have put off reading any of his books (maybe I spend too much time online). About Ps.103, I didn’t make it to vespers this evening–snowed in. I do look forward to hearing that psalm chanted by our choir.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I so enjoyed this post and the Audubon Page link as well! As a child, I used to hear owls late at night. That may be because we slept in summer with windows wide open. Now, I long to hear them again! How could anything be more beautiful than the Great Horned Owl?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The Eastern Screech Owl sure does sound like it is whinnying!!
    I have located owls in the daytime by looking at trees where crows are making a fuss. I’ve found Barred Owls that way as well as various Hawks.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for sharing Wilbur’s recitation. That was fun to watch. We used to have two owls on our farm, one in back by the barn, and the other nearer the road. They were not screechy owls. Perhaps they were Great Horned Owls. I haven’t heard them in a long time. I’m glad one visited you!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. That poem is great! I love owls. One of the eeriest sounds I ever heard was when I was awake in the middle of the night in a strange house in the mountains of NC and heard an unfamiliar owl outside. It was thrilling.

    Liked by 1 person

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