What's in a Name?
The other evening, from the woods down below our house, came the distinctive, haunting call of the screech owl. I was particularly delighted to hear it, since it was the first time I’d done so since moving to Wellfleet some 25 years ago. It used to be a fairly common sound when I lived in Brewster, deep in the oak woods that the screech owl seems to prefer. Its numbers have never been great on Cape Cod, and are fewer on the Lower Cape, which is still predominantly pine woods.
I’ve always been puzzled by the screech owl’s common name, since his call is anything but a screech, more like a long, soft whinny. Nor am I alone in feeling this way. Ernest Choate in his entertaining and informative DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN BIRD NAMES considers the screech owl’s common name “a libel on this bird which has a liquid, wavering whistle for its call.” Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his monumental LIFE HISTORIES OF NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS, describes the owl’s call as “a tremulous and lugubrious wailing.” My own favorite local name for the screech owl comes from Louisiana, where it is known as the “shivering owl.” Whatever you choose to call it, it has certainly sent shivers up the spines of those who have heard it over the centuries.
The screech owl is a relatively small owl, only about 8” in length, but its effect on the human imagination has been impressive. This is due not only to its mournful call, but the fact that it is the most strictly nocturnal of owls, making it hard to find. Its plumage is also extraordinarily effective as camouflage, resembling the bark of a mature pitch pine, against which it can perch unseen. When at rest it also adopts what is known as the bird’s “hiding pose,” where the owl stretches itself out along the tree’s vertical trunk or horizontally along a limb, making it virtually impossible to see even when you are looking right at it.
Its “silent, ghostly flight…mournful night cries” and its ability to seem invisible have given the screech owl a prominent place in both folklore and literature, usually as an omen of ill fortune. The ancient Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder described it this way: “the screech owl always betokeneth some heavy news, and is most execrable and accursed. In summer he is the very monster of the night, neither singing nor crying out clear, but uttering a certain heavy groan of doleful morning, and therefore if it be seen to fly abroad in any place it prognosticateth some fearful misfortune.”
But my favorite treatment of the screech owl’s call is found in the “Sounds” chapter of Thoreau’s Walden, where he describes it thus: “It is no honest and blunt tu-whit tu-who of the poets, but without jesting the most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolations of suicide lovers remembering the pangs and the delights of supernal love in the infernal groves. And yet I love to hear their wailing, their doleful responses...They give me a new sense of the vastness and mystery of that nature which is the common dwelling of us both. “Oh – o – o – o that I had never been bor – r – r – rn!” sighs one on this side of the pond, and circles in the restlessness of despair to some new perch in the gray oaks. Then - “that I had never been bor – r – r – r – rn!” echoes one on the further side, with a tremulous sincerity, and “bor – r – r – rn!” comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods.”
Well, leave it to Thoreau to turn even one of the most solemn and mournful sounds in nature into a joyful experience. As E.B. White once said, Thoreau’s abiding popularity, especially among young people is his “refusal to convey bad news.”