For the Birds Radio Program: Winter: the Sounds of Silence
Winter is the season of silence. Few birds sing, frogs are sound asleep deep under frozen ponds, and other animals—even those who are quite vocal in other seasons—have little to say. We hear the occasional flock of chickadees or finches, and sometimes a nuthatch’s irritable little mutterings. Walking in the woods, sometimes we notice the soft hammering of a lone woodpecker, or someone’s soft call notes. But any new fallen snow muffles what little sound there is.
Somehow this muffled silence reminds me of owls. Their flight is silent, their soft feathers, slow wingbeats, and comb-edged flight feathers all hushing the sound of their wingbeats. Most owl vocalizations are low-pitched and fairly quiet. Even in spring the soft hooting of a Great Horned Owl always sounds a bit muffled to me, as if this feathered tiger is ambivalent about announcing its territorial and romantic yearnings at the risk of frightening away prey. And the noisiest Barred Owl limits winter vocalizations to simpler, quieter tones. In any season, there is a quiet seriousness about an owl’s expression and plumage, and this is somehow especially in keeping with the hush of winter. When I see a wind-ruffled owl on a frozen day, I’m always impressed with the thick density of plumage, so perfectly adapted to cold and silence both.
So far this winter, birders have spotted several species of owls in north country, but the one most often seen has been the Great Gray Owl. This species is huge—27 inches long, with a five-foot wingspan, yet it weighs in at only two or three pounds. When we are in the presence of one of these enormous birds, it’s hard to realize that it is made up of feathers and spirit and not much else. I came upon one of them in the Sax-Zim Bog during a soft snowfall recently. The quiet magic of the moment when its eyes met mine was breathtaking. I’ve seen well over a hundred Great Grays over the years, and yet this is one bird that gives me a genuine thrill every time I see it. There are some species of birds that there can be too many of—starlings, pigeons, crows, even my beloved Blue Jays. But there could never be too many chickadees, and there could never be too many Great Gray Owls.
A recent survey indicated that many people in this country would never consider living in northern Minnesota because of our severe winter weather. To me, the harshness of the weather is more than offset by the loveliness of our birds, epitomized by the Great Gray Owl. The sight of such a bird could help even Paul Simon find exquisite beauty rather than existential loneliness within the sounds of silence.