Antics of the Great Horned Virginia Owl

great horned owl
Horned Owl. Via Archive.org

Who-Who!

I heard a bird singing the other night. It introduced itself as “Who-who! who-who!” That was the whole burden of its song as it sat there on the summit of a tall pine tree.       

The moonlight was very brilliant, as it always is in Florida, and the outline of the great bird stood out sharply against the sky. It did not look at all like “the little cherub that sits up aloft.” In truth, its aspect was the direct opposite, for two horn-like spurs stood up over its head, and a distinct tail hung down below the branch on which it sat. Without doubt, these significant looking horns, feathers though they be, have as much to do as its gruesome cry with the dread in which many people hold the great-horned Virginia owl. I have never met any one yet who enjoys that uncanny “Who-who! who-who!” in the middle of the night.

great horned virginia owl. the outline of the great bird stood out sharply against the sky

Not long ago two carpenters, who were new to the sights and sounds of our Florida wilderness, became involved in a quarrel with some of the old settlers. The former slept in a little log cabin in the woods, and that night they were roused from their slumbers by an appalling sound, a deep, hollow voice calling “who-who! who-who!”

It was close by, and the next moment the signal, as the carpenters believed it to be, was answered from the other side. Then they felt sure that their enemies had come to attack them. Seizing their guns they clambered out one of the side windows and crept softly away into a clump of palmettos. They were badly demoralized. Again came that blood-curdling cry, again its answer, and then two of the big horned owls flew over their heads and the “who-who! who-who!” died away in the distance.

The men looked at each other, had a hearty laugh and went back to bed. The joke was too good to keep to themselves, so one day they told it.

Another man had a comical experience in this line, not long afterwards. He had been to town and imbibed rather more liquid refreshments than was good for him. Consequently he lost his way in the dark. He was sober enough, however, to begin to shout, hoping that some one would hear and answer him.

           “I’m lost I’m lost!” he shouted; and presently came an answering call:

            “Who-who? who-who?”

            “I’m lost! I’m lost!”

            “Who-who? who-who?”

            “What’s matter who? It’s me, Tom Smith, and I’m lost.

            “Who-who?” 

“It’s me, Tom Smith, I tell you!” interrupted the irate wanderer. “Can’t you tell a feller the road without askin’ his name? Say, what yer doin’ up in that tree, anyhow? Come down out o’ that, ‘stead o’ sittin’ up there sassin’ folks!”

For by this time he had traced the answering voice to a tree by the roadside, and when a neighbour who had been enjoying the fun, revealed himself, the angry man was treating the supercilious owl that sat up aloft with some very energetic language.

Even the Indians, fierce and savage and heedless of danger as they are, have a wholesome fear of the great horned owl. They dread that weird “who-who! who-who!” even knowing whence it comes. They call its source the “Death owl.” Let an Indian hear its hollow, resounding call, and at once he whistles to it, or, if not in sight, towards the direction whence the sound proceeds. Then he listens in intense, breathless eagerness. If the owl repeats the cry, the savage goes on his way rejoicing. But if there be no answer to his whistle the Indian bows his head in resignation, and moves slowly away in the full belief that he has heard his summons to a speedy death.

great horned virginia owl. fierce and savage and heedless of danger as they are

No one who has heard that melancholy cry coming out of the stillness of a dark night is likely to forget it. Many a time in the by-gone days of Indian warfare has a sudden call to arms in the dead of night been drawn forth by the startling cry of “who-who! who-who!” But you must not suppose that this is all the great horned owl is capable of in this line. It has other nocturnal solos and one of these is an excellent imitation of the half-suffocating screams of a person who is being throttled. I heard not long ago of two newcomers here in Florida who bravely rushed out into the darkness, rifle in hand, to rescue a supposed victim from a murderous assault. They found no one, of course, and were further mystified by hearing the same distressed cries proceeding from the air above them. Looking up, they traced the shadowy outline of a large horned owl sitting on the peak of their house.     

Their dog had rushed out with them, and presently the owl ruffled up its feathers, drooped its wings and barked angrily, as clear and true a bark as that which the astonished dog sent back in return. This barking is an accomplishment that the owl delights in, especially in winter nights or when it sees a dog, toward which animal it shows a decided antipathy.

great horned virginia owl. barking is an accomplishment that the owl delights in

The great horned owl has a healthy appetite of its own, and disdains nothing, whether “fish, flesh or fowl;” squirrels, ducks, rabbits, rats, mice, weasels, chickens – all are eagerly captured and devoured.

But it has one favourite tidbit, over and above all others – it dearly loves the wild turkey. That bird, however, is a wise one, like unto the owl itself, and is always on the alert. The owl has small chance to capture it except by seeking out its roosting place and then pouncing on it suddenly from above, before it has time to awaken. But even so the owl does not always come off the victor in this sly little game. The wild turkey is a light sleeper, and is not often caught napping. Roused by the rushing wings of its swooping foe it often outwits the owl in a comical way. Down goes its head, up goes its tail; the latter spreading flat over its back like a shield.       

The owl alights with swift impetus on the stiff, slippery tail-feathers, and takes a regular toboggan slide down the sharply inclined back of its intended victim, shooting off into the air. Before it has time to turn or recover from its amazement at this queer turn of affairs, the turkey is off, hiding safely in the underbrush, and, as we can well imagine, indulging in a hearty laugh over its crestfallen foe. – Philadelphia Times.

marsanneMarsanne Petty conducts historical research about 18th century southern United States and environmental history. To get more great updates and original history, sign up at The Southern Sage. To get her to help you with your own research project, email mapetty[at]gmail.com.

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