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Music of the Night

At the peak of my neighbor's roof stands a big owl, its head turned around 180 degrees to face me, and two round eyes stare down into mine. Not only did it hear me open the door; it probably heard the floor squeak when I got out of bed .

Great Horned OwlsI wake up. It's the middle of the night. What has awakened me?

Then I hear the low hoots of a great horned owl. The sound is muted, because the windows are closed against the clear, cold January night. I settle back in my bed and listen to the faint sounds of wilderness.

But I'm not in the wilderness. I'm in my house in a residential neighborhood of a small town in the Midwest. By day the wildest creature to be seen around here are the rabbits that nibble the bark of my young apple trees.

A second owl's voice joins the first. It hoots the same tempo, but at a higher pitch, and not in unison with the other. The two voices overlap in a canon, a duet both urgent and nuanced. At that moment I cannot imagine anything more wonderful than waking in the night and hearing the love songs of owls.

Nesting in winter?

Range MapWhere I live, in Iowa, as in much of North America, great horned owls start courting in December, while spring is almost unimaginable. In January, they can already be laying eggs.

I'm not going back to sleep. I want to see the night singers. I get up, put on my parka, and grab my binoculars. Opening my back door as quietly as possible, I step out onto the porch and look into my yard. A full moon on the snow makes the night bright enough to see individual bare tree branches and dark seed heads of spent zinnias, in detail but without color.

Perhaps I feel as if someone is looking at me, or maybe it's the uneasiness of a diurnal creature exposed in the night that makes me turn suddenly to look toward my next-door neighbor's house.

At the peak of the roof is a big owl, still as an ornament. I'm looking at the owl's back, but its head is turned around 180 degrees to face me. Two round eyes stare down into mine. I never had a chance of getting outside without the owl's detecting me. Not only did it hear me open the door; it probably heard the floor squeak when I got out of bed.

I'm wondering whether this is the male or the female.

Wild animals in town

Great Horned OwlThe great horned owl is a fierce predator. Watching one on my neighbor's roof is like getting to see a wolf or a grizzly bear, right in town.

For a long minute owl and I consider each other. I don't know what the owl makes of me. Then it turns its head away, spreads its wings, and glides silently out of my sight.

Well, it was great while it lasted. I reach behind me for the knob and am about to open my door. But a big owl sails over my head. Low! It might have just taken off from my own rooftop.

The bird is bigger than I had realized. I stretch out my own arms to take its measure. Its wingspan is almost as wide as my arms. The owl flies with deep powerful wing beats. It glides in slow motion to the neighbor's roof and lands, close to the spot I've been watching.

While I'm trying to decide if it's the same owl, a noticeably smaller owl comes out of nowhere and lands beside it, with a mouse hanging from its beak. And now I know which is which: the male great horned owl brings gifts of food to the female, who is larger than her mate.

Wedding cake?

The male faces the female, lowers his head, ruffles out his feathers to double his size, and raises his tail. Then he stands up tall and holds the mouse in front of the female. Through my binoculars I watch her take the offering from his beak and swallow the mouse headfirst.

Wedding CakeWow! I feel like a commoner who's been allowed in to witness the nuptials of royalty. This is a different take on one spouse feeding wedding cake to the other. But the symbolism is parallel, demonstrating an intention to care for the partner.

She's going to need him. She'll be incubating eggs for a whole, cold month, starting in January or February, in snow and sleet and freezing wind. The owlets will already be fledged from the nest while other birds are just gearing up to migrate north to breed.

The two owls stand face to face on the rooftop a while longer, and then they fly off in opposite directions. I hope they'll nest in the nearby county park. I love knowing that such wild and primal creatures coexist with people and secretly share our towns.

Diane PorterIf you ever feel that nature has been tamed and constrained, and that wildness is gone from the woods, just wake up and listen to the music of the night.

-- Diane Cooledge Porter

This story appeared in the Bird Watcher's Digest, January, 2007.
Story copyright 2007 by Diane Porter.
Photo of two great horned owls is a PGC Photo, copyright Hal Korber.
Photo of owl in profile: Tammy McAllister/
Mice photos: Robert Owen-Wahl/



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