Sunday, December 8, 2013

In the bleak mid-winter (owls do sing)

the city woods where owls hoot

In the last hours of darkness early this morning I awoke to hear two Great Horned Owls duetting in the sparse urban woods just outside our bedroom window. The waxing moon hidden by cloud, with less than two weeks to go to the longest night of the year, and the thermometer reading 26 below, two owls are renewing their nuptial bonds. As cold and dark at it may be here as we reach mid-winter, summer lives inside the promise of two owls and the courtship rites that will keep them near one another as they hunt the winter through. One moonlit night in January, spring still a distant imagining, the male will bring his intended a mouse. When she is ready to mate, she will make the graceful bow that lets him know. Soon after, in a nest they have taken over from crows or hawks, she will lay her eggs.

For now, though, in December, you would think the need to keep a fire in the belly, to find the next mouse venturing over the snow, would be all that matters to an owl. And yet, on such a moonless night as this, with the cold so hard and deep, there was much hooting outside my window.

At first, it was just the male in deep low hoots: hoo-hoo-hooo, hooo-hooo. That classic Great Horned rhythm I learned as "Who's awake? Me tooooo." I was awake, wondering about him. Had he just digested a particularly good meal, enough to stir the merest thoughts of her? He called for half an hour at two minute intervals, unanswered, a lone voice in the dreaming city. Finally, just when I was drifting off to sleep again, there came a reply--a higher pitched, hurried response somewhere farther to the east where the spruce trees are thicker: hoo-he-he-hoo-hoo, hooo-hoo-hoooo

She placed her first reply over top of his hoots, the notes too rapid to count. Between the speed and her not waiting for him to finish, it was easy to imagine her as impatient and reluctant to finally give in to his persistence. "Yes, yes, alright, I hear you, already."

Her response quickened his calling, though, shortening the intervals. Soon they were duetting properly for fifteen minutes or more, the male hooting first and she responding, but now and then she would interrupt his hoots to place her higher notes over top. I wish I had been able to record the sounds to play it back here but you can listen to similar duets on web pages like this one.

Eventually, she dropped out, and the male was left to hoot alone as dawn approached. He continued for another half hour, then fell silent, returning once or twice again for single iterations before giving up entirely.

By then I was fully awake, thinking of the ferocity of the Great Horned, fierce not only by talon and beak, but by its capacity to thrive amid the wounded wildness of this continent. Many prairie species are declining and the advance of this adaptive owl is in some instances accelerating the decline. Planting poplar and spruce in shelterbelts out on the open plains has made the land more comfortable for settlement and cropping agriculture, but with the trees came this efficient hunter out to places where they now eat more Burrowing Owls and Greater Sage-grouse than they would have in the days when buffalo and fire kept the grass free of woody growth.

And yet, there are no simple answers here. The shelterbelts are vital to farm people who live out on the prairie and many of them grew up hearing the sounds of Great Horned Owls hooting on December nights. The Federal Government's callous decision to close the Prairie Shelterbelt Centre at Indian Head and abandon its program of providing trees to rural people in the prairie provinces is just as foolhardy as their decision to abandon the PFRA pasture program. Both have been vital to the prairie people whose ancestors came to settle the land at the behest of previous governments. Well-managed public grasslands where you could graze some of your cattle was part of what made prairie farm life more affordable and sustainable in the last century. As was the ability to bring in free trees to plant around your home and yard site.

If we allow the new barbarians in Ottawa to close down these important public programs and do not speak up, the yard lights of our prairie farmsteads will continue to wink out one by one and the abandoned shelterbelts we already see reminding us of neighbours past will multiply. 

Until the farmer with forty sections of land to sow to Monsanto's designer seeds comes by with his caterpillar and pushes the shelterbelt into a pile, though, there still may be a pair of Great Horned Owls hanging on to hunt the mice that remain.

The owls hooting here in the middle of the city last night may well have been born in the nests of such a shelterbelt, and now, like the jackrabbits fleeing the increasingly sterile farmland, they have come to the nearest place with cover and food.

This may not be the prairie world we would choose to make if we could do it over again, but there is nonetheless a vexed kind of solace in the hoots of a wild owl heard by night where thousands of us refugees from rural life now sleep in close proximity.

And it comes in knowing that, despite our failures, our weakness, and our silence in the face of government
misdeeds for which we have only ourselves to blame, there are owls that on the other side of Christmas will be laying eggs in nests. With each small, white sphere a pulse of warm life carefully placed within the dark, icy heart of winter, the fiercest and most adaptive of our owls bears witness to the wild that persists, that is waiting to work with us to heal the prairie should we ever come to our senses.
Great Horned Owl sunning itself in an abandoned shelterbelt during last year's Craven/Lumsden Christmas Bird Count


  1. A very interesting article about the owls. Makes one think about nature and how we humans are changing the prairie landscape.
    The demise of the PFRA program is a travesty,I'm glad I spent some time on the Lanagan Wolverine Pasture, it was an eye opener.
    A great read

    John Gordon Surrey B.C.

  2. Thanks for the comment, John. Wolverine is a unique pasture because it is in the Aspen parkland. It is one of the first to go through the transition and is scheduled to be handed over to patron management very soon depending on whether the province can work out details on the HQ land and other Federal "non-reversionary" property.

  3. Does that mean the same farmers will try to carry on as before ?
    I will keep reading your posts and follow up
    when I visit for the spring migration.

  4. John:

    If you read back through the last year of Grass Notes there is lots on Wolverine and on the issues surrounding patrons having to jointly manage the pastures without any oversight or administration from the public interest. Many patrons are very worried about what may happen to the pastures under co-op self-management.


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