Being influenced, indeed being changed, by my wife Rohan has been one of the most fulfilling parts of my life. This blog tells of an example of such influence. It was minor in the grand scheme of things, but still important. It relates to Rohan’s love of owls and how, gradually, this has become part of my world too.
Rohan’s tiny study in Richmond doubles as an aviary with owls perched on walls, shelves and work tops; they are everywhere. They are also dotted around the house – on cups, umbrellas, tea towels and even in the workings of our kitchen clock whose chimes are replaced by bird songs: at six o’clock a Barn Owl screeches, at twelve it’s two hoots from a Tawny Owl.
Rohan’s interest started when, at eleven, she was given a small, black and gold papier-mâché owl by her father. Later, an engagement ring from me with an owl motif nudged her interest further and now she has well over two hundred – she is an owl devotee. With Rohan’s enthusiasm, the change in me was inevitable.
While in our house owls are unmissable, outside in the wild it is a very different story. After all, most of our local owls are nocturnal. Last year we were given hope. We learned that there is species of owl that often hunts in the day – the Little Owl – and it happens that it lives in Richmond Park which is just fifteen minutes up the road from our London home. A local birder told us how he regularly sees them perching in the trees when he goes to the Park to take photos. So far we have not seen any, but recently, in one of our searches, something rather more extraordinary occurred.
As a couple of over-seventy year olds, Coronavirus politics now confine us to our home throughout the day save for an hour or so’s break for exercise outside to keep us healthy. Generally we walk to Richmond Park which is a real tonic. It is vast, and with its gentle hills, its fields, its ponds, its deer, its magnificent woods (some of the trees are over 500 years old – one 800!), there can be few city parks so pleasant. And in all this there is a touch of irony – it was established just under a 400 years ago by Charles I after he moved from central London to Richmond to escape the Plague!
These days our mid-morning walks bring added pleasure. At the moment the Park is almost empty and with next to no other human beings, no cars, bicycles or aeroplanes, it is paradise. It was while standing near an oak copse in such quiet calm that, without thinking, I hooted loudly to any owls that might be in the vicinity. While I do not know the song of the Little Owl, the hoot of the Tawny Owl was easy – I have heard it so often at midday in our kitchen.
After a few seconds a reply came from high up in the trees in front of us. We heard three unmistakable ‘whoo whooooo’s which we discovered later were indeed from a male Tawny Owl who was saying the equivalent of ‘Hello’ or ‘I am here’ or perhaps ‘This is my patch’ – his ‘advertising’ song. I repeated my hoot, and the owl responded again; for both Rohan and I striking up this relationship was thrilling. After my third hoot there was silence – he’d had enough. We never saw him but his two calls did for us.
Next day, on the same walk and in the same place, I repeated my hooting antics and again he replied. This time, however his whoooing was fainter and came from the other side of the copse. Again he gave up after two exchanges.
But there was more to come. On our next visit to the park we went on a path that took us through fields and far away from the original copse. Once again, in response to my call, an owl replied. This time his hoots were very faint and, from the landscape, must have come from trees at least two hundred metres away. Since it was most unlikely that we could have been in the original owl’s territory we assumed that this call must be from a second owl.
These moments talking with wild Tawny Owls felt very precious; what a privilege. And it raised a question. We had believed that, apart from occasional sorties at dusk and dawn, Tawny Owls are nocturnal, but neither of our owls were respecting this rule. Perhaps it was that, in the extraordinary peace and quiet of these pandemic days, they could hear us better. If the coronavirus pandemic has any silver linings, for Rohan and I this conversation would be one.
The illustration is a photo of a display cabinet on a wall of Rohan’s study. The closest to a Tawny owl is second from the right in the bottom row.
For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Peter R, Jeni, Rohan and Vivien.
21 thoughts on “Talking with Owls”
I didn’t know that among your many talents you could speak owl, Joe! Loved this post. We have an Owl and Bird Box Society here in Dorset http://www.dobbsoc.co.uk/
Dear Merrily, Thanks for your comment. I think your praise might be misplaced. It was the owl who was gifted enough to understand Joe. Love, Joe
You probably woke it up, Prof.. Poor owl.
Dear John, You are probably right, but it was against a background of unusual calm and quiet that he could hear me. Yours, Joe
How very wonderful and uplifting Joe, I hope Rohan knows the hoot hoot as well!
This reminds me of our walk to the beautiful lakes near our house and along by Stockers Lake, a kingfisher always whizzing along or perchs near us that makes us feel s/he is our friend. Last week, possibly because it is so quiet, we saw two sitting next to each other on ‘our’ branch, both put on a display whizzing back and forth to entertain, amaze and add joy to our day… truly magical.
Dear Carolyn, Thank you for your comment. I wonder in how many ways the quiet calm of lockdown is altering animal behaviour. In Richmond Park the deer seem unusually human-friendly at the moment fir example. Love, Joe
Rohan’s collection of owls strikes me as so much more civilized than the vast collection of ashtrays (mostly emptied of their ash) that belonged to a cousin of mine. At every hotel she patronised, over a number of years, she would slip an ashtray or three into her capacious handbag, leaving the hotel owners fuming!
Dear Stephen, Collectors are a funny bunch. I know two people who collect sugar lumps in their original wrappers. Yours, Joe
Love your blog. Hope your both well we are! Keep walking – keep safe. Love C & M
Sent from my iPad
Dear Caroline (and Mark), I am glad you like the blog. It is good to hear that you are both well. We are well too. These are horrible times. Love, Joe
I loved this blog! We have a powerful owl living nearby and love to hear the hoot at night. I have to tell you of a bird encounter we had today- Swinder, my daughter Sarah and I went for a long walk at Georges Heights in Mosman and when we returned bought a picnic lunch to eat near Balmoral beach. Sarah had a salmon salad and the moment she began to eat she was dive-bombed by a kookaburra. Each time she tried to take a bite another kookaburra swooped, so eventually
she had to leave without having eaten- we were eventually surrounded by 6 kookaburras!
Dear Robin, I am glad you liked the blog. It sounds as though life for you (and the birds) has returned to normal. We are in lockdown and have been told it could last months more. Life is difficult here in the UK and for several of our neighbours. Love,Joe
Of course I have known Rohan’s fondness for owls for many years but I did not know its real origin. I always thought of the connection with her doing a philosophy degree in France but I did not remember the owl her father gave her. Thanks for telling us.
Here in Oxford I only saw an owl flying away with a huge wingspan a few months ago. Never heard or seen it since.
We have quite a few in Sauliac so may be you could do a tooheet toohoo tutorial on Utube. A bit of a change from masks tutorials!
Take great care of yourself. Much love to you both.
Dear Sauliac, thanks for your comments. I will certainly give you a hooting tutorial but that assumes that the owls in France speak ‘hoot’ like we do. We also see them in France. Best time is during harvesting when driving home in the dark. They often sit on the Top of road signs.
I wonder if the owl was saying, “Keep it down!” I loved reading this Joe. It was a reminder of the lovely walk you and Rohan took me on in Richmond Park almost exactly a year ago. As travel is out of the question, it’s special to have a glimpse into your world, half a planet away.
Dear Rohan (2) It is lovely to hear from you. Others have also suggested they were saying ‘Please be quiet’. A birder tells me that when they sleep a tiny part of their brain remains alert and I clearly tapped into that – as another owl. The fact that they both bothered to reply was the most extraordinary thing, and naturally Rohan (1) and I were very touched. Love, Joe
PS Rohan (2) was actually named after my wife.
I also loved finding out the origins of Rohan’s owl obsession – I didn’t know when, where and how it started. I could just picture the scene there in the unusually and deliciously quiet Richmond Park and have been chuckling ever since at my image of your surprise (and delight) getting into ‘conversation’ with the tawny owl. I do hope you manage to spot the little owl one day too. Nature continues and is thriving whilst we humans are locked down. I feel privileged to be able to get out in the natural world each day and it is a source of deep contentment for me. I am appreciating how the (relatively) ordinary in nature is actually extraordinary and magical.
By coincidence I was doing some #lockdownlistening yesterday, working through a lovely Radio 4 series from 2016 ‘Natural Histories’ which is still available online. And guess what? There’s an episode on owls. You and Rohan might like to listen: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b07ffxsm
Love to you both and stay safe – keep enjoying the natural world.
Dear JJ, You are so right about nature. Seeing plants, birds and deer thriving while we humans are cowering, even declining, is a leveller. I wonder if our values will be changed by the pandemic – my own feeling is that they will. Hopefully our greedy and often thoughtless society will be more considerate.
Love as always, Joe
Just to say I so enjoyed your blog and shall enjoy going up to Richmond Park and twit twoooing – I suspect I won’t have the same success. Sorry our tea party was cut short by the
rain but I shall be out a 8pm cheering the wonderful work of our care workers.
Dear Kaye, Thank you for your comment – good luck when you call on the Tawnies in Richmond Park. Yours, Joe
Note of explanation. Kaye and the rest of our tiny community have a semi-virtual tea together each day at 4pm. Our houses are arranged in two rows of four separated by a garden of trees and bushes. At tea time we sit/stand just outside our front doors and chat loudly across the divides so more than honouring the rules for distancing. Joe