A Whinny in the Night

A Whinny in the Night

Les Line
Published: 09/08/2008

It’s late summer and once again the eastern screech owls are singing in our wood every evening--or through the night if there is a full or gibbous moon. Of course, this isn’t the only time of year that screech owls sing, though they are usually quiet between November and January. Moreover, they have a large vocal repertoire. What we are hearing now is called the “descending trill,” which is easily mistaken for the whinny of a horse. The first night I heard it at Seasons, our place in the Taconic Hills of New York, the owl was sitting in an old hickory a few yards from our bedroom window and the whinny was so loud and insistent that I was certain one of our neighbor’s draft horses was in dire distress.

Eastern screen owl, gray phase, by Wolfgang Wander (Wikepedia)

A tremulous wail that lasts around two seconds with a falling inflection at the end, this song may be repeated several times. And to humans who don’t know the source, the sound is so ominous that it was once described as “a most solemn, graveyard ditty, the mutual consolation of suicide lovers.” In fact, the descending trill is the male screech owl’s territorial song. We’re hearing it so often at this time of year because the juvenile owls that left their nest cavities in mid- to late May in the Northeast are suddenly independent of their parents and are looking for turf of their own.

There’s another screech owl song that ornithologists call the “monotonic trill.” Used by courting males, it consists of 30 to 70 rapid notes on a single pitch and lasts three to six seconds. Neighboring males sometimes sing in synchrony at night. Then there are assorted hoots, barks, yips, screeches, screams, rasps and rattles, all with specific meanings to the birds. Here are some samples of screech owl vocalizations from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

I’ve only heard, not seen, our resident screech owls (or the great horned owl that sometimes visits our wood) so I can't tell you if they are red or gray phase. I probably should spend a moonlit night in a stakeout under the trees, armed with a big Mag-Lite. However, I remember that long ago, when I was a very young birder indeed, I held a red-phase owl in my hands as it died, apparently from eating a mouse poisoned by the folks next door. And I cried.