Friday 11 February 2011

Two Hoots

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...

The Owl
Edward Thomas

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.


  1. I'm sure I must have heard an owl, but not in recent memory. I love their 'melancholy' twit twooing. The blackbirds are out and about in these parts, hopping amongst the snowdrops.

  2. Ah yes the blackbirds still thrive, thank heavens - such beautiful birds. And the song thrushes are hanging on, at least round here...

  3. Two takes on blackbirds:

    Charles Conrad Abbott:

    Blessed blackbirds; they may steal the farmers' corn, but place a generous sum to their credit when you recall the concerts of early spring. We may, if willing, be taught a useful lesson by such a desolate region as a dismal swamp. Think of it ringing with music and made for the time an ideal garden spot. We cannot, at the same time, think of desolation and hear a blackbird singing. I brighten my own life whenever the cheery chorus of blackbirds is echoed in my heart, and would that others would quickly learn this simple secret of attaining happiness.

    And R. S. Thomas:

    A Blackbird Singing

    It seems wrong that out of this bird,
    Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
    Places about it, there yet should come
    Such rich music, as though the notes'
    Ore were changed to a rare metal
    At one touch of that bright bill.

    You have heard it often, alone at your desk
    In a green April, your mind drawn
    Away from its work by sweet disturbance
    Of the mild evening outside your room.

    A slow singer, but loading each phrase
    With history's overtones, love, joy
    And grief learned by his dark tribe
    In other orchards and passed on
    Instinctively as they are now,
    But fresh always with new tears.

  4. Thanks Dave - well chosen, and each true in its different way. The blackbird's song is certainly the richest music to be commonly heard in suburbia - unless it's the song thrush's. Trust RST to home in on the grief - he's right though, it is there...

  5. Each morning I throw down, over quite a wide area, a 'no-grow mix' for the ground feeders and then watch from a window as they swoop in. One fascinating aspect is the way the blackbirds leave all others in peace, including the humble sparrow, but give each other hell, and hell to any nervous thrush who dares to join the throng. But whenever the fieldfare arrives, the chasers become the chased. The blackbirds must think "Bloody Nora, that's a big bugger".

  6. Are you familiar with the Morepork Nige? That's the owl we hear round Wellington way. So named because that's what it's twit twoo sounds like...

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