For the Birds Radio Program: Winter Hush

Original Air Date: Dec. 4, 1989

A Great Horned Owl flew in on a cold front, bringing inspiration to Laura Erickson. (4:15)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Great Horned Owl)

The soft hush of winter envelops us on days when the barometer falls. Thick snow muffles our footsteps, and airborne flakes swallow up every sound. The sky itself seems muted—soft and gray, the snowfall obscuring the horizon, blending earth, trees, and clouds together. Birds, their down fluffed up against the winter cold, take on a softer aspect—their plumped up bodies seem to muffle even their own calls. The chickadees are subdued, and the soft warbles of Pine Grosbeaks grow even softer. The Pine Siskins’ and redpolls’ chatter is muted, like so many small children talking through heavy wet mufflers.

On such a day last week a Great Horned Owl flew in from the far north. It was of the Arctic race, its plumage the soft grayish brown of aspen bark. It sat within the sheltering boughs of a spruce tree, its unforgiving yellow eyes staring not at me, standing right beneath it, but at the crows who had betrayed its presence. I counted 25 of the black mobsters screaming and flying at it in dead earnest.

As a raven symbolizes death to a superstitious person, so too an owl symbolizes death to a crow, though on much more substantial evidence. A Great Horned Owl sits silently by day, biding his time, keeping watch, noting exactly where the crows go to sleep. Then, under cover of darkness, his soft feathers muffling his approach, he flies in and kills them in their sleep, often eating nothing but their brains. When a mob of crows curses an owl together, their caws merge together into a literal roar. But on the snow-silenced morning last week, even the screams of the crows were muted to soft shouts by the falling snow. I didn’t hear them until I was only two blocks away.

Seeing an owl is always an event—even at the Hawk Ridge Banding Station on a night when they’ve already banded 50 owls, the 51st is still exciting. So I changed my course and headed straight for the “cacawphony.” I didn’t change my morning pace, of course—a person should never hurry on a silent winter morning.

I knew the owl would stick around. Even if the crows grew unbearable, what was his alternative? He could fly away, but they would surely follow. His forbidding talons and beak were enough to keep most of the crows at a respectful distance. The few boldest ones sat above or across from him—never below, where he could suddenly drop down and snatch one. During my brief watch, three crows sat on the branch just above him. One jabbed him from behind the moment he turned to check me out, and his head spun back around to glare, his steady gaze seeming to memorize the crow’s features, as if he planned a particularly unpleasant revenge. Two other crows sat high in an aspen across a small ravine, and occasionally goaded each other on to dart at the owl. Their speed and agility kept them safe even as their bravado brought them less than an inch from the owl’s face. At one point all five of the closest crows attacked at once. The owl’s head momentarily spun from one side to the other, trying to keep them all in his view at once, and then, since it was impossible to keep an eye on all of them at the same time anyway, he looked down at me as if to win my sympathy for what he endures.

Great Horned Owls are perfect birds. Their feather markings are subtle and beautiful camouflage, their silent flight exactly right for nighttime hunting, their sharp talons and feathered feet matchless in fulfilling their function. Crows, too, are perfect birds, their black feathers absorbing enough of the sun’s rays to allow survival in even the coldest northern winter, their long, powerful beak exactly the right tool for probing into ears of corn or the nests of other birds, their intelligence and curiosity exactly right to succeed as omnivores and opportunists. And this hushed winter morning, when these perfect crows, a perfect Arctic owl, and I all found ourselves watching one another in the winter stillness, was the start of a perfect day.

(Recording of a Great Horned Owl)

This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”