Vartabedian: Here’s One Owl That Gives a Hoot

I heard an owl call my name.

In its deep and forceful voice, it woke me up from the comfort of my bed. If the owl is such a wise old bird, then how come it’s not wise enough to escape the night shift?

“Who! Who!” came the sound, somewhere in the trees above my home. My bedroom faces the back woods and is susceptible to all sorts of nocturnal clamor.

I thought it was my wife talking in her sleep or a bad dream about mistaken identity. Again, it rang out, “Who!”

And once again, if it’s so wise, why in heaven’s name does it keeps asking the same question?

For weeks now, this energetic bird has wakened me from a peaceful repose. Perhaps my snoring kept him awake and this was his form of retaliation.

His sounds had a maestro’s cadence—every six seconds or so, nonstop and distinct. Had there been six or eight owls, they would have formed an a cappella chorus. But, as best as I can determine, this was a solo player.

Yes, the dove brings peace. The stork brings tax exemptions. But the owl must be troubled by insomnia and hoots to while away the lonely hours.

Next to the lark, I’ve been most mystified by the owl. If there was any advice to be rendered, it always came from the owl. So erudite and so outspoken, it made you want to listen.

My first encounter with an owl came some summers ago while driving along a lonely back road to my camp. There he stood, atop a big tree, watching me as I parked my car.

His succession of hoots echoed throughout the night. I turned on my flashlight to catch a more genuine glimpse of the bird. He didn’t seem to mind the light in his face.

I felt honored by his presence. It was as if I had made a rare discovery in ornithology. That summer, the owl was the talk of the lake.

While I do feed the ducks and take an interest in their preservation, I am not a confirmed bird-watcher. Actually, I am somewhat uneasy at the thought of birds watching me like vultures ready for prey.

But, here it was, 6 a.m., and I found myself tiptoeing through the woods.

“Who?” I cried, trying to attract the owl’s attention. “Who! Who!”

I remember a poem I once read about “A wise old owl who sat in the oak. The more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why couldn’t we be like that wise old bird?”

There’s a lesson in humanity here.

At regular intervals, my owl’s plaintive hoot would break the silence. I hooted back. My only concern at the moment was getting hit by an owl-sized dropping. What unwise birds drop with uncanny accuracy might be nothing compared to what an owl drops on those who persist in prying into their personal affairs.

“Who!” came the sound. It seemed to grow louder. A twig snapped, sending a chipmunk out of hiding. I bolted for cover.

My impulse to sight the bird grew stronger by the moment. By now, the big game bird must have had me well into eyeshot. I have been told by birders that owls have better vision than humans.

For the next 10 minutes, I followed the owl’s hoots. And then it happened. Behind me came an answering hoot—louder and louder.

Was there a second owl? Surely, if there was one, there might be others nesting nearby.

I crept forward, quietly rounding a small hill. Then I saw him, the other “bird” hooting so mournfully—my next-door neighbor enjoying a prank as the owl in disguise.

My advice to all bird-watchers is this. Take up astronomy. Studying the stars remains a lot easier, provided you keep your distance.

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
Tom Vartabedian

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