Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, August 29, 2011

Translating Owl Calls

Great Horned Owl
Transcript of For the Birds for August 30.
When my son Joey three, one day he came home from nursery school distressed at what he thought was egregious misinformation being disseminated to him and his fellow pupils . His teacher had read a book to the class in which dogs said “bow-wow,” cats said “meow,” chickens said, “cluck cluck,” and pigs said “oink.” Joey was indignant—he said everyone knows dogs go “Rrrrrrufff!”, cats go “mrrrrowwww,” chickens say, “brrrack, buk, buk,” and pigs snort. Russ and I had always done our best to mimic animal sounds, and I think it just must not have occurred to Joey that normal people have too much dignity or too little experience with animals to approximate their voices.

People have always come up with words—some making sense, some not—to describe animal vocalizations, especially bird songs. Owls are perhaps the easiest to assign a word to, because Great Horned Owls really do produce calls as close to “who who” as a wild non-human would want to. Nonetheless, people assign pretty strange sets of words to owl sounds. I’ve yet to hear a Barred Owl call out from a tree, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” Even if that does match the rhythm of their standard call, it’s odd to use a mnemonic about cooking for a bird who most assuredly prefers its meat raw.

Barred Owl

Shakespeare wrote in Love’s Labours Lost, “Then nightly sings the staring owl, To-whit! To-who!—a merry note.” In this case he was probably writing of the Tawny Owl, a European species found in England, related to our own Barred Owl.

An anonymous 13th century poem features a long debate between an owl and a nightingale. They weren’t precise about which species of owl, and it would be impossible to hazard a guess based on what he says, starting with,
Do you think that I can't sing just because I can't twitter? You often insult me and say things to upset and embarrass me. If I held you in my talons---if only I could!--and you were off your branch, you'd sing a very different tune!
He continues with a long soliloquy to the nightingale which includes,
I'm so fierce because of my proper nature. That's why I'm hated by the small birds that fly along the ground and through thickets. They scream and squawk at me and fly in flocks against me… I don't want to quarrel with the wretched creatures, so I give them a wide berth…One shouldn't quarrel with fools… My voice is confident, not diffident; it's like a great horn, and yours is like a whistle made from a spindly half-grown weed. I sing better than you do; you gabble like an Irish priest. I sing in the evening at the proper time, and afterwards when it is time to go to bed, the third time at midnight; and so I regulate my song. When I see dawn coming far off, or the morning star, I do good with my throat and call people to their business. But you sing all night long, from evening till dawn, and your song lasts as long as the night does and your wretched throat keeps on trilling without stopping, night or day. You constantly assault the ears of those who live around you with your piping, and make your song so cheap that it loses all its value.


That anonymous Middle English writer was sure giving some poor owl an awful lot of words besides “hoo, hoo.” I think Charles Dickens deserves the last word on owl vocalizations. In his magnificent book, A Tale of Two Cities, he wrote, “The owl made a noise with very little resemblance in it to the noise conventionally assigned to the owl by men- poets. But it is the obstinate custom of such creatures hardly ever to say what is set down for them.”

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