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.