Midnight Whistlers

(This column was first published in the January 22, 2001 Buffalo News.)

    The soft somber whistles came from the dark hardwood forest. Varying in pitch they mostly slid down the scale, but some held a single mournful note. Musicians use terms like tremolo and vibrato to describe the pulsating effect of these kinds of sounds, but perhaps today's youthful jargon does it equally well with that much-overused word, weird.

    Responding at first to recorded calls on my CD player the whistlers moved in closer and closer until they were perched in tall cottonwoods on each side of the road. On this winter night, snowflakes drifting down and settling on our faces as we stared up into the darkness, Mike Galas and I couldn't see the callers where they perched -- we had forgotten to bring flashlights. We could, however, see them fly ever closer from branch to branch until they were almost directly overhead. At the end of each of these flights the birds seemed to disappear but their calls continued from the apparently empty trees. My player silent, their music was now a duet.

    These were, of course, screech-owls, their name missing the point entirely. Why not whistling owls or even piccolo owls? I agree with Allan Eckert, who says of them, "A great injustice has been done to the Screech Owl by labeling it with such a name, for its call is by no stretch of the imagination a screech. Rather, it is a quite charming sound, imbued with a pleasantly poignant and plaintive quality."

    The screech-owl -- that recently added hyphen in their name another unnecessary confusion promulgated I suspect as a kind of insiders' joke by ornithological systematists -- is a very small owl. Their average weight is 6.5 ounces. Compare that with their neighbors in these forests, the great horned owl -- note no hyphen there. The larger owls weigh in at 53.3 ounces.

    Hold up the palm of your hand. The screech-owl could easily hide behind it. They are only seven to ten inches in length. When they spread their wings, however, they span two feet. No wonder we could only see these birds when they flew.

    These may indeed be small birds -- smaller even than robins -- but their size belies a toughness that borders on viciousness. Don't ask to be reincarnated as a screech-owl. You would probably come back as the runt in a litter and be quickly dispatched by your siblings. They do not hesitate to take on prey larger than themselves. Domestic pigeons, ruffed grouse, chipmunks, rats, snakes and a kestrel have been recorded. And they can be single-minded in their attacks. A screech-owl struggled down the chimney of a New Jersey home and ate the family canary. Feathers showed that it had grasped and pulled the bird through the bars of its cage.

    And when they are nesting, these little warriors even attack humans. Some years ago a pair lived over my cabin on Keuka Lake. After being dived upon several times, one of those attacks drawing blood, I only ventured out holding a large sheet of corrugated paper over my head. Within the first few steps I would feel one or two whacks through the cardboard.

    As with so many predators, the screech-owl's food record is mixed. They are wonderful mousers, one observer claiming "thousands and thousands fall victim to their industry" and they take many insects as well. But an Ithaca pair fed many birds to their young -- 98 individuals of 24 species. One night's diet included phoebe, scarlet tanager, cedar waxwing, chipping sparrow, redstart and catbird.

    Yet these feisty little birds whistle lovely soft mid-winter melodies.-- Gerry Rising