I started talking to owls 20 years ago.
I learned to do hoots in the rhythm of the phrase “Who cooks for you?” That’s the memory trick we use to remember the barred owl call: Hoo, hoo, ho, hooooo.
It was pretty exciting when an owl responded. And for the most part, they’ve been pretty good about calling back. That is, until lately.
Every May, I take part in the St. Paul Audubon Society’s weekend retreat at the Villa Maria in Frontenac, Minnesota, along the Mississippi River just south of Red Wing. I help lead morning and afternoon bird walks, and at night I lead an owl walk.
On Friday night this year we tried the old Frontenac cemetery, where there are Civil War graves. A barred owl had been heard near the cemetery earlier in the evening. Our group got there about 9:30. It’s pretty eerie to be in a pitch-dark cemetery calling and listening for an owl.
We tried calling with a recording I have. Getting no response, I tried my own vocal imitation of a barred owl. Still no owls responded.
The fireflies, however, were spectacular. And we saw a satellite trace a path among the stars. We called it an evening and headed off to bed.
Saturday night we went a few miles down the highway to Hok-Si-La Park, near Lake City. We headed into a broad meadow, ringed with trees, and came to an area where we’d heard owls in the past. Again, pitch dark. And again, nothing but fireflies.
We haven’t had very good luck finding owls the last several years. I can rationalize by saying that we’re calling them right in the middle of their nesting season.
Our calls seem to be most effective when owls are defending territory or setting up house-keeping. They think our call is a rival owl and come to see who we are.
But by May they’ve settled on territories, chosen mates, laid eggs and are incubating them. In some years, they may already be feeding little owlets. They really don’t have time to chase around the woods looking to see who else is in town.
But they used to respond in May three or four years ago. What’s changed?
Well, perhaps there’s less habitat and fewer owls. Perhaps there’s been a loss of prey through residential development, agricultural practices, competition from other predators.
We got to discussing the possibilities after our most recent unsuccessful outing. My friend Paul wondered about the tape recording I was using. He thought that perhaps the owls were getting used to it after hearing it all these years.
The recording I use was probably made in the southern United States because you can hear chuck-will’s-widows calling in the background. That’s a southern version of our whippoorwill, another bird that can call its name all night long.
So a discerning barred owl might think, “Hmm . . . chuck-will’s-widows here in Minnesota? I don’t think so. Must be that guy with the tape again.”
What’s worse is that when I made the tape, I started recording from the source tape too soon, and I’ve got the narrator saying “Barred owl” in a deep baritone before the owl itself starts calling. I tell the folks in the owling group that’s so the owls know who we’re talking to.
Those of us who’ve been leading owl walks for a few years regale the crowd with quips and puns. When you can’t deliver owls or any other promised bird species, you’ve got to give the people something for their money. (Although since it’s free, I guess they’re getting their money’s worth.)
If we hear a dog bark on the other side of the woods, I identify that as a “barked” owl. Or if a train whistle sounds out in the night, I call out, “There’s a Great Northern.”
Last year, a young man brought his fiancée along on the owl walk. He had gone on his first one 10 years earlier. After it was over, he said, “Same lame jokes as ten years ago.”
After the cemetery trip this year, one new birder in my car said, “You know, I’d come back again just for the humor.”
That confirms my philosophy that you can still have fun even if you don’t find the birds.
I guess I’ll keep doing it until it’s not fun anymore. Knowing the group I bird with, that’s going to be a long time.