The Owl Papers by Jonathan Maslow, published by Vintage Books, copyright 1983, 177 pages.
“Twas the owl that shrieked the fatal bellman, which gives the stern’st goodnight,” said Lady Macbeth when her traitorous husband murdered his king. Shakespeare was reflecting his age’s connection of the doleful call of the owl with imminent death or evil. Earlier medieval children were coerced into obedience by the couplet:
I once was a king’s daughter and sat on my father’s knee
But now I’m a poor hoolet, and hide in the hollow tree!
Even today Hollywood invariably uses the Great Horn’s mournful call in its horror movie soundtracks. What a reputation! Is it those penetrating eyes, the calls, the claws, or the nocturnal hunting? These are all examples used by Mr. Maslow in The Owl Papers as he discusses this bird-of-prey in our history and literature. He also includes interesting chapters on their evolution, physiology, and behavior as well as chapters which recount numerous anecdotes from his quests for owls in greater New York City. The birding adventures are grouped by the four seasons, further adding to the appeal of this short book.
A memorable chapter discuss the hunting prowess of the Great Horned Owl, called Le Grand Duc by the French. After the owlets have fledged in autumn they are callously driven off the breeding ground by their parents, who each resume their solitary life as hunters. Evolution has produced the ultimate nocturnal hunter with the Great Horned, described in detail by the author. Along with the keenly sensitive eyes, aligned anteriorly to track the prey with binocular vision, the entire head structure is sculpted to enhance hearing. The facial disk collects and channels the sounds to large ears on each side of the face, one directed slightly upward, and one downward. By tilting and turning the head the owl receives directional information about each sound’s source. The ears are most sensitive to the high frequencies of the owl’s prey–usually the sounds of small rodents scurrying among the leaves. The Great Horned, in fact can successfully hunt entirely by sound.
The owl feathers are designed for stealthy flight, and the claws for a crushing and penetrating kill. It makes me remember with some trepidation my encounter with a Great Horned years ago. I had perfected the owl’s call and one dark night decided to try it out, answering the nocturnal hooting of an unseen Le Grand Duc in my backyard. I kept “whooing” and slowly inched toward the owl’s answering call when I suddenly felt the swoosh of wind and passage of the huge bird, inches above my head. My imitation must have been good, frankly too good, and I am thankful to still have my scalp.
The owl drawings in this post are courtesy of Lou Probst, a nonagenarian artist and friend of a friend. I sincerely thank him for allowing me to use them. I especially like the Great Horned drawing, which reminds me to stick to my imitation of songbird vocalizations and leave the dangerous raptors’ calls alone.
Owl photography in daylight is difficult. This is not because the birds are moving, but precisely the opposite. They are usually, quiet, hidden, and often sleeping, recovering the previous night’s hunt. You’re lucky when you find one with his eyes open and in a location amenable to photography. My only experience with nighttime owling was during the Christmas Bird Count years ago when I volunteered to assist a dedicated local birder. We found a remote wooded road, put the tape recorder on the roof of the car and played the various calls, recording the responses from each species. We never actually saw anything, but it was fascinating, albeit cold work.
Another chapter in The Owl Papers describes owling in the Meadowlands of northern New Jersey in pursuit of Short-earred Owls. The pristine wetlands of the early twentieth century was sought out as a picnic site for New Yorkers escaping the city heat. By the 1970’s, however it had become a wasteland. Maslow gives a great description of the habitat gone bad, with old leaking drums, rusting cars, dead end rutted roads, abandoned warehouses with broken windows, and rotting dog carcasses, which were likely the remains of a nefarious competition. All were overgrown with Phragmites choking out the native grasses. There were Red-winged Blackbirds and Flickers spotted, along with a policeman sound asleep in his patrol car, but no owls.
I’m not sure how I stumbled across The Owl Papers, but it is my kind of book. The author’s descriptions of his quest for the birds in an urban environment, along with discussion of their anatomy, physiology, and behavior, sprinkled with reminders of the owl’s role in our history and literature, make for a good read and a lucky find.