I was sitting out on the porch the other day having lunch, enjoying the cooler fall weather. There was a gusty breeze, the sun was bright, and all-in-all it was one of those days you consider to be perfect. Last Mother’s Day, we had gotten Betsy some of those big wind chimes that are calibrated in different pitches, and we’d not really appreciated them in the summer, when few breezes blew. Today, though, they were playing a tune!
Then I heard a different tune. Which was not particularly unusual when you have several different-pitched wind chimes, but it wasn’t quite in harmony. I sat up and tried to concentrate as it sounded again.
Cross my heart, there was a screech owl in the back yard – and he was singing along with those wind chimes!
This was at high noon, now. It’s common to hear screech owls out here at Brownspur, and we have raised several of them – matter of fact, seems like I just did a column on them a month or so ago. Yet the time to hear screech owls is at dusk and dawn. They’re nocturnal birds, as are all owls, and they sound off that quavering cry all night long, if you want to stay up and listen to it. Betsy has even sent me outside to shoo owls away from the pecan tree over the bedroom window, because they had awakened her with wee-hour serenades. But high noon? No way!
Yet this owl was talking right back to those wind chimes, one of which was at almost the same pitch as the owl’s voice. Question is, was the owl calling because he thought it was another owl, or just because he felt moved to join in the music?
I voted for his joining in the music, and sat back to enjoy it. He called for nearly an hour, from the same tree, sounded like. It was great!
We’ve lots of times sat outside at dusk and called up both screech owls, with their quavering “whooo-ooo-ooo-ooo,” as well as barred owls and great horned owls with their standard “Who-who-who cooks for you?” We even raised some of the latter, great horned owls Major & Howland, and a barred owl named Stoney. We’ve never had pets as interesting as the little screech owls, though: Hoot, Don Quixote, Gordo, and Monfred.
First time I ever heard one imitating wind chimes at high noon, however.
We’re used to the Brownspur mockingbirds imitating sounds, especially before duck season and turkey season, when we are practicing up on the calls. If you’ve never heard a mockingbird quack like a duck, you still have things to learn in this life.
One of the worst mocker imitations I ever heard was after I had spent all day printing out letters to bookstores about a new book I was publishing. It was a beautiful fall day, and the windows were wide open, one of them a double window right behind the printer. The feeder was on the blink, so I was having to hand-feed each sheet of paper into the printer, and it would make a high-pitched “Beep-beep-beep” after each sheet went through. I was used to it, until the next morning early, when I was just sitting down with my first cup of coffee. The first couple of times I head the printer beeping, I didn’t take notice, and then I thought I’d just forgotten to turn it off the night before. When I went to refill my cup, I checked the printer. It was off, but just then the beeping started again.
The printer’s beep sounded just like the smoke alarm!
I spilled coffee as I sprinted upstairs – no smoke there. I ran down the outside stairs to check the Store, our guesthouse – no smoke there. I puffed into the house – no smoke in the sewing room or pantry, where the hot water heaters are. The beeping had stopped now, and I collapsed into my chair before it started again.
It was after I made that panicky circuit once more that I heard the beeping begin again, and traced it to the corkscrew willow by the patio. A mockingbird who nested there had apparently listened to that printer all day before, and was now imitating it, not knowing that it was an exact replication of the smoke alarm!
After we came home from the Navy, complete with a genuine cuckoo clock, the clock hung in the den right next to the doors onto the side deck. Those doors stayed open most of the year, except for the dead of winter, and we all were so used to the clock’s cuckooing that we never noticed the mockingbirds were imitating it until a dozen years later when the clock quit. The mockers continued to cuckoo for years!
So, are the mockingbirds fixing to start imitating wind chimes and screech owls?
Whatever. We can stand it, as long as nothing is burning!