As a new year starts, I love to step outside at dusk and see the twigs of the bare trees etched against the greenish afterglow of sunset. I was about to call the dogs back into the house when I heard two barred owls hooting. We don’t hear barred owls too often. Hearing them makes me smile.
To me, a barred owl sounds like a person trying to sound like an owl. I used to attend the annual meetings of the National Wild Turkey Federation during the l980s. They always had a turkey calling contest, which included an owl hooting competition. Turkey hunters know that a spring gobbler will sometimes give his roost location away before daylight by gobbling in response to a hooting owl. Contestants could use their own voice or a specially made owl call, and the judge would decide who made the best owl hoot. I can make a tolerable voice imitation of a barred owl, to which wild turkey gobblers, as well as wild barred owls, have responded. But I never entered a competition! Nowadays, most hunters use electronic owl calls.
Humans have a long history of imitating owls. Native Americans used owl hoots to communicate with each other after dark. Tlingit tribesmen hooted like owls when going into war to boost their confidence and to inspire fear in their enemies. The Cree people believed owl calls were a summons from the spirit world. If you hooted an answer to an owl call and received no response, you would die. Robbers in England signaled each other with an owl’s call. They believed that, unlike the whispered human voice, it would be dismissed as a natural night noise.
Angela Crenshaw, a ranger at Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Church Creek, Maryland, says Harriet Tubman frequently used owl calls to communicate with refugees fleeing slavery. Tubman imitated various owl sounds “to alert freedom seekers if it was OK, or not OK, to come out of hiding,” Crenshaw says. Crenshaw claims that Tubman must have imitated the hoots of a barred owl, a bird she would have heard often while growing up in the southern states.
Barred owls have a call many people think sounds like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” These owls may not care who does your cooking, but their cadence matches those words. It seems to be a favorite call of barred owls everywhere. The first barred owl I ever heard in my native western Pennsylvania clearly ended a series of eight hoots with a characteristic southern “you-all.” Now, in the woods behind our barn, barred owls sometimes wake me up at night with a single loud “Who-aww!” Owls even make this call in the daytime. Years ago my wife and I sometimes hooted like this to locate each other during our woodland adventures.
During their spring breeding season, pairs of barred owls seem to enjoy hooting contests with each other. They start out by trading the usual eight or nine hoots. As their excitement grows, they improvise and add loud whoops and yells until the woods echo with their wild music. Now that’s a concert!
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer