Returning home from a party the other night, we stepped out of our car and heard a Barred Owl call. I was excited. We have lived in this same house in southwest Minneapolis for 16 years and have never seen or heard an owl here before.
The Barred Owl, according to our Peterson Field Guide, is about 24 inches tall, almost as big as a Great Horned Owl, but without the ear tufts that stick up like horns.
The Barred Owl has lots of nicknames: Eight Hooter, Rain Owl, Wood Owl, Striped Owl, Swamp Owl, Round-Headed Owl and, most commonly, Hoot Owl.
Amusingly, our guidebook instructed us as follows: “Notice big brown eyes.” It was dark out, and even though the owl sounded as though it were fairly close, we couldn’t see so much as a profile in the bare trees across the street, let alone gaze into its big eyes. It was calling from near the creek, which puts it in its favored habitat, woodlands near water. It finds there what it needs to eat, mostly rodents, including squirrels.
While the Barred Owl call is considered distinctive, it may help to have a practiced ear. My husband said that he would have dismissed it as a dog barking if I hadn’t been there with him. We heard: hoo hoo hoo-hoo, hoo hoo hoo-hoo-aw. The mnemonic device used to remember the call is: “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.” (People also mistakenly call this bird the Bard Owl, as if it were a poet, though it repeats the same few sounds over and over.)
In our residential neighborhood, where domestic life is the focus, the owl asks a relevant question. Who cooks for me? My husband does. We trade off cooking dinner. His trademark dish is spaghetti and meatballs. He and I brought pots of this dish around to the homes of friends in need of a boost this winter. Sitting in their dining rooms, eating and talking, made for lighter hearts all around.
Who cooks for you? is a question with resonance. It has to do with more than food. It suggests: Who cares for you? Who inspires passion in you? Who expresses passion for you?
Barred Owl courtship begins in February. We heard ours call on the night of February 4th. It hooted and paused, hooted and paused. It may have been trying to determine if there was another owl in the area. It may have been a male seeking a mate. The females lays round, white eggs in a tree cavity or in an abandoned hawk, crow or squirrel’s nest.
The partly-grown young, before they can fly, crawl out of the nest using their beaks and talons, and sit on branches, according to “The Owl Pages” site on the Internet. These are called (I love this) “branchers.”
One meaning of the word “cook” is: “to subject (anything) to the action of heat.” When people are playing music with passion, we say they are cooking. Which brings to mind two local music groups from some years back: Men Who Cook, and the one that formed after they did (the names of the groups themselves are like a type of call and response), Women Who Eat Out.
The owl’s question reminds me of a line from a poem by a western Minnesota Poet. In “After Her Divorce,” from, her book Pictures of 3 Seasons, Gail Rixen writes: ‘What kind of question/is “What’s for supper?”’ If it’s one-sided, she means. Indeed.
Owls are associated with omens. Though hearing the Barred Owl did not seem ominous, seeing an owl has been thought to signify that someone is about to die. Perhaps because owls fly silently through the night they seem supernatural. The writer John Berger, in his book “The Shape of a Pocket,” writes that we sometimes “catch sight of another visible order which intersects with ours and has nothing to do with it.” The owl seems to live in such an alternate order.
Older women sometimes look like owls to me. As we age, the feathers around our faces grow lighter, our beaks more prominent. Our toes arch, and our long toenails grow opaque, like talons. Years ago a group of older women on the North Shore called themselves the O.W.L.S. The name stood for something like Older Women’s Letter-Writing Society. These women met regularly, and at each meeting they chose a local issue of concern. They wrote impassioned letters to pressure authorities to do the right thing.
I imagine those authorities looking over their shoulders as they left the office, scanning the sky and the trees.
Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.