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Screaming In The Night

Dear Bird Folks,

I live in what some people might call “the country.” It’s an area of back roads, farms and woods. After dinner I take long power walks through abandoned fields and on the back roads. I am very used to the sounds of the night. Coyote howls, owl hoots, and raccoon growls don’t bother me at all. That all changed two weeks ago. While cutting through a farmer’s field, I heard the worst sound that I have ever heard in my life. The best way to describe it is a bloodcurdling scream. It totally creeped me out. Then a few nights later I heard it again. Now I take my walks someplace else. Do you have any idea what made that awful sound: bird, mammal, alien? < p />-Paul, Hays, KS


You Big Baby Paul,

You mean to tell me that late at night, while you are walking alone in the dark, along some deserted field, you hear an unidentifiable bloodcurdling scream and this makes you somehow uncomfortable? What kind of a wimp are you? What are you worried about? You said you were taking a “power walk.” Everybody knows that nothing can hurt you when you are power walking. Look it up in your local Personal Safety Handbook. You’ll see.

In order to identify your mystery screamer, we have to narrow down our choices. First of all, I doubt very much that your scream came from an alien, because an alien’s call is usually a series of short phrases, followed by “nanu, nanu, this is Mork calling Orson.” What you heard was no alien. It also couldn’t have been a mammal because I don’t write about mammals. So that leaves us with some kind of bird. There, that didn’t take us long to narrow things down.

In the fall many birds are migrating at night and they call to each other while they are flying. On a calm, clear, fall night you could hear migrating songbirds, waterfowl, even shorebirds. But none of them give a bloodcurdling scream, unless the bird flying in front of them suddenly stops short. Owls would be a good possibility. I know you said that you were familiar with the hoots of an owl, but not all owls hoot. Actually, most owls don’t hoot. They also don’t all scream either, but one owl sure does. I’m betting that you have been hearing the calls of the Barn Owl and, if it was, I can totally understand why you would never want to leave your house again.

You were correct in describing the Barn Owl’s calls as “bloodcurdling.” It’s hard to imagine an eerier call in all of nature. Banshees sound like nightingales compared to the call of a Barn Owl. They are not only scary to hear, but they can be even scarier to see. Barn Owls are slender with white undersides. When seen flying at night, they resemble ghostly spirits. That’s not something you want to see when you are walking alone in the dark.

Very late one night, a friend and I were driving down a lonely stretch of highway in Arizona. Along the side of the road were many white crosses. Talk about being creeped out. We weren’t sure if something awful had happened on this road or the locals were simply trying to ward off vampires. Either way, the crosses put us on edge. Then, out of the darkness, a white image flew across the road, right over the hood and across the windshield of our car. They could have heard our screams in Madagascar, with their windows closed. I quickly realized that we had just witnessed a Barn Owl on its evening hunt and a smile came upon my face. My friend on the other hand is in his fourth year of therapy.

You have nothing to fear from a Barn Owl. When seen during the day they are rather sweet looking, for an owl. They have heart-shaped faces and are not at all menacing. Barn owls actually like people and, as their name implies, live in our barns and other empty buildings. Farmers love them as they eat tons of rodents. Some people have even put up Barn Owl nest boxes, with some success. I know their raspy, screechy calls are tough to take, but your voice might be a bit harsh too if you swallowed a whole rat every day of your life.

Instead of avoiding the area where you heard those mystery calls, Paul, I think you should go back there. If you take along a strong flashlight you might get lucky and see the ghostly form of the Barn Owl winging across the fields on its evening hunt. And, if for some reason I’m wrong and those awful screams aren’t coming from an owl, forget what I said about power walking and try some serious power running instead.