The other morning, listening to the pre-dawn birdsong - which is getting livelier by the day (yes, spring is coming) - I was cheered to hear a couple of tentative hoots from a passing Tawny Owl. Not so long ago, this used to be a commonplace sound of the suburban night; now I rarely hear it - still less the eerie screech of the Barn Owl. In my boyhood there were Tawny Owls resident in every local park and spinney, and Barn Owls in the larger ones, their ghostly forms gliding by at dusk an unfailingly thrilling sight. A little further out towards the country, there were Little Owls to be seen too - those small diurnal owls that are the original owl of Athena/Minerva. I haven't seen one locally in years - nor have I seen a Barn Owl. I wonder why owls - suburban owls at least - have fared so badly in recent years. Other raptors seem to have thrived, with kestrels now commonplace, sparrowhawks very numerous, and even buzzards flyling over the wilder parts of Surrey - red kites will surely be next on the scene. Perhaps the owls are essentially country birds, and as suburbia got noisier and more brightly lit, it no longer suited them. But I miss those haunting cries 'shaken out long and clear' on the suburban night...
Donwhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved,
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the north wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.
Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl's cry, a most melancholy cry.
Shaken out long and clear upon the hill
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered too, by the bird's voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.