“Ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy will
be full.” John 16:24.
Obviously concerned, White River neighbor Ann
Gohman, at a neighborhood gathering Saturday evening, asked if I had been
horned owls along the river.
“Not like we used to see them when they nested
in the old, storm-damaged maple tree in the wooded are of the river’s far
bank, but I still see them now and then,” I told her.
And what to my wondering eyes would appear on
Sunday morning (50 or 60 feet from our living room double glass doors that
look out over the river)?
You guessed it . . . a huge (almost two feet tall),
wet and ruffled great horned, sitting in a hackberry tree covered with
a green, climbing vine . . . He soaked up the bright sunshine for half
an hour or more before leaving for wherever great horned owls go on January
A quick call before he departed brought Ann ands
her birding binocs.
Therein lies the foundation for another great
horned owl story, perhaps two, if I don’t wax too wordy.
You see, my life has been intertwined with owls
and hawks of several species, foxes, and other predatory critters since
I was a small boy learning to be an outdoors enthusiast in Southern Indiana.
In those days--the 1930s--all predators all predators
were thought to be such a menace to wildlife that we not only killed them
on sight, we even collected bounties for the slaughter.
I don’t think anyone could ever heap enough shame
on the heads of predator killers of that era (including this gray head),
but it was a part of my outdoor indoctrination that is very difficult to
put in the past.
This unsavory activity did have a plus feature
in that it taught me to talk to owls. This, eventually, would lead not
only to a communications system for me and my older squirrel-hunting mentor,
the late William Branard “Jack” Cain, but to a way of enjoying these magnificent
birds throughout my life.
Squirrel hunters are a devious lot when it comes
to allowing other hunters know where/when they hunt. Hunting on Sundays
was taboo (worse yet, it was unlawful) in those days, and some of our favorite
squirrel woods were posted “no-nos”. So we talked in hoots and pre-arranged
“hoots” spoke volumes. We might be several hundred yards apart, but by
“speaking” our owl lingo we knew what the other hunter was doing.
Eventually, though, our communication system would
put me deep in a woodland that stretched for miles with the sun sinking
fast on an early fall day.
Jack and I had caught ride to the edge of Boo’s
Thicket, a huge woodland that bordered the Muscatatuck River south of Crothersville,
our hometown. Late in the afternoon Jack hooted, and I translated the message
as a request for me to come to him. I answered and headed in that direction
as fast as I could without creating undue disturbance in the dense brushy
But every time I hooted to ask him to let me know
where he was, his position would change as he went deeper into the woods.
And the light of day was failing with each hoot and I went deeper and deeper
into the woods.
Finally, I slowed my pace, became more stealthy,
and eventually put a large barred owl to flight just as I thought I was
about to find Jack. As darkness closed in, I realized that I had been duped
by this impostor . . . that I had been communicating with a real owl that
would fly deeper into the woods before I could see it.
It was well after dark when I stumbled back to
the road. Back in town, I found Jack with a group of other townsmen on
one of the downtown liars’ benches.
Tired and hungry, I recounted my story, and Jack,
laughing heartily, said he had gotten hot and thirsty at mid-afternoon
and had left after hooting to let me know what he was doing. I guess I
didn’t hear or “give a hoot.”
Still another interesting owl-hooting interlude
occurred on a still, cold winter night many years later. My wife and I
lived on the east bank of White River, Trail’s End, west of Fishers.
Being a night worker in the Sports Department
of the Indianapolis Star, I would arrive home in the wee hours of
the morning. Much to the consternation of my wife, who viewed my owl talking
through jaundiced eyes, occasionally I would sit on the front porch to
unwind from eight hours at the "funny farm," and call in an owl.
On the night in question, I must have been too
tired for conversation with anyone . . . not even an owl. So I had slipped
quietly into my pajamas and was about to drift off into never-never land
when the resonate hoot of a great horned owl shattered the quiet, starlit
night--reverberating off the bedroom walls like the smashing break of the
balls on a pool table.
“Beautiful,” I smiled, “what a way to end
“Crazy Bill,” my wife said, sitting up in bed.
“The neighbors are gonna think we’re nuts.”