Beings of only five senses, we are probably surrounded by realities of which we are utterly unaware.
Our evolution has enhanced some of our senses, dulled others, and made some unnecessary. Dogs, if they were capable of derision, would laugh at our pathetic ability to smell; a falcon would wonder how we can exist as blind as we are; an owl could never imagine a being with such poor hearing; and these are animals who, so far as we can tell, have the same basic five senses we possess.
What more must be happening out there, all around us, of which we know nothing?
Even if we assume that it is nothing but a material universe and that no supernatural power is at work in it, gigantic amounts of reality must be completely unavailable to us. Literally unimaginable.
The best thing that can be said about our dim perceptions is that they are all we’ve needed to survive. You can think of our senses as reducing valves, removing all non-essential information. A being overloaded with information, unable to sift through it all quickly, would be destined for evolution’s trash bin. Like owls, we constantly survey our environment searching for what we need and watching for danger.
Because we are so sense-limited, birders long ago developed the rule that if you can’t see the bird, but hear it and can identify the song, you get to add the bird to your life list.
Which is a good thing when it comes to owls.
Superbly adapted to night, and supremely camouflaged for daytime sleep, owls are more often heard than seen.
To identify owls you must become familiar with the night. You must dress warmly, sit quietly, be patient, and listen. And you must be in the right place. Owls are not overly fond of our cities, although you will find them there. But it is best to get outdoors into forests and fields and deserts and mountains if you want to meet owls. Unplowed fields, unlogged forests, unpeopled deserts are the best places to go.
You must take some trouble to get to them but once you do, it is magic when you hear an owl calling in the night. If you’ve been very still, very quiet, perhaps you have heard the owl’s prey too, scuttling across the canyon’s floor or rustling dead leaves on the forest floor. Hearing that owl call must strike terror into the small mammals which feed at night and are fed on by the owls. As we discuss in our post about Halloween and Barn Owls, not much sound escapes the acute hearing of an owl. Their faces and ears magnify and funnel sounds inaudible to us into a superb navigation system that allows them to fly and hunt in the dead of night.
One can’t describe sounds in words any more than a smell can be explained in words. No substitute exists for the actual sound waves striking your eardrums and transmitted to your brain. Cornell University publishes a 2 CD set of the 19 owl species commonly found in North America. We suggest you buy it — or some other compendium of owl calls — and listen to it before going out on your night time search. In fact, take the CDs with you and listen to them in headphones while you wait. You will then have the sounds immediately available if you hear an ambiguous call. Or an ambiguous owl.
The CD is Voices of North American Owls, ISBN 0-938027-66-2, and sells for $30.00. We have it in our physical store at 505.898.8900 and online. We have a tape which we like entitled Hoots, Toots, Calls, Clicks and Hisses which was published by the Owl Research Insititute in 2002 and available here and at our store.
To listen to recordings of Barn Owls go to http://macaulaylibrary.org/index.do and type Barn Owl into the search box and then click on the audio or the video clips and listen to your heart’s content. Try to describe the call in words and we’ll add your descriptions to the comments section below.