I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and underdeveloped nature which men have not recognized. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have."

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

With no camping trip on my summer agenda, I knew I'd have to get creative to simulate a good slumber in the wild. Hard to replace is the after-dark concert of animals and insects that's always recognizable but never quite the same — the sometimes-soothing, sometimes-scary rustling, buzzing and screeching. That's at least part of what makes an overnight stay in a tent so memorable: everyday noise replaced by an outdoor tune. So when news of a CD collection of owl sounds arrived in my e-mail, I thought that maybe that aspect of the re-creation might be solved: Pitch a campsite in the living room (not as weird as it sounds), roast the s'mores in the fireplace and, before crawling into the sleeping bag, push play.

At the press of a button, the two discs in the Voices of North American Owls collection do deliver hundreds of owl sounds by 19 species — chitters, barks, moans and trills. There's also a 56-page booklet full of color photos and detailed descriptions of the recordings. Many of them were taken from the archives of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. (the producers of the disc), and these lab reproductions are absent any background noises, hard to distinguish as coming from owls, for reasons that go beyond the absence of stereotypical hoots.

I heard things that sounded like donkeys braying, women shrieking, cats hissing and even one ("Male bark call"; Disc 1, Track 55) that made me feel as if I were in the company of a dirty old man laughing — heh, heh, heh. Some of the prized recordings in this collection are new captures from out in the field, making them precious to owl aficionados and educators alike. I enjoyed these because they were rich with the sounds of waterfalls, crickets or other aural markings of a natural habitat. What the critters were saying seemed to make more sense just because of the context.

But owls sure have a lot more to say to each other than I ever realized. Though researchers have been able to catalog specific emissions based on their accompanying behavior, they aren't sure exactly what owls are saying to each other, however precisely they convey it over and over again. Because owls are nocturnal, it's presumed that their vocalizations developed so the raptors wouldn't go bump in the night when using the cover of darkness to hunt, eat, fight and mate. Indeed, the similarities to human behavior are eerie.

Take the "feed me" cry of the baby barred owl ("Fledgling begging call"; Disc 2, Track 3), a species common in Central Florida. The notes that are hit when the kiddies whine for snacks doesn't differ much from how a mature female conveys her hunger and expectations to her mate ("Female solicitation call"; Disc 2, Track 1). Bring home some takeout! Me and the kids could eat a horse, you lazy good-for-nothing, she seemingly bitches.

Owls sing songs, too, or rather sing multiple-note compositions that have "typically have high harmonics" and sound pleasing to people's ears. Our feathered friends get sonorous when they want to express "territorial defense, and mate attraction and bonding" (boreal owl, "Male prolonged staccato song"; Disc 2, Track 54).


Voices of North American Owls
(Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology)

The "chitter" is what you hear when owls feel discomfort. That can be when the gloved hands of ornithologists are probing or when the birds themselves are preparing to, ahem, have relations (great horned owl, "Female chitter call, squawk, male territorial hoot"; Disc 1, Track 47). However disquieting the thought of overhearing them in their most private moments, the tenor of owls actually doing the nasty is a much lower-key affair (Mexican spotted owl, "Copulation"; Disc 1, Track 87) than what leads up to it.

If you're close enough to see an owl hiss, you're way too close to those penetrating globes that validate all the myths about evil eyes (barn owl, "Sustained defensive hiss, bill-clap, warning scream"; Disc 1, Track 6). Hissing can be accompanied by other "threat postures" and followed by a thorough scolding, often used toward humans (barn owl, "Fledgling mobbing call"; Disc 1, Track 10). No wonder the folklore surrounding owls casts them as both sacred harbingers of good luck and demonic instruments of sorcery.

Honestly, things didn't work out exactly as I planned: This CD collection is not the night-in-the-great-outdoors soundtrack that I hoped it would be. The tracks come in short bursts, one after the other, followed by silence, and don't allow for a continuing sense of atmosphere. Still, specific entries could be incorporated with other musings by night dwellers to create a disc to fulfill my original purpose. In the meantime, I'm going to heed the advice of the CDs' creators and be very careful about what I play, when and where. You never know hoo's listening.

Speaking of The Arts


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