Imagine yourself in this scene. You are alone, outside late at night in the woods. (I will not presume to know what you’re doing out there, and that’s none of my business so I won’t ask). You’re surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of forests and farmland. The closest people won’t hear anything if something should happen, shall we say, in your vicinity. A cemetery containing the graves of early pioneers who were murdered and buried where they fell is only about a quarter-mile away.
It’s a quiet and very dark night with no moon; the stars are hiding behind an heavy overcast. Suddenly an ear-piercing shriek fills the air all around you. The meaning of ‘hair standing on end’ and ‘blood running cold’ instantly becomes visceral. The mind races – is that human? It sounds more like a banshee or a demon, but far more legitimate than any Hollywood horror movie sound effect ever was.
The scream only lasts two or three seconds, followed only by a question: who?
This actually happened to me while camping several years ago. Even though I was an experienced camper, I’d never heard anything like this. As far as I was concerned the only thing to fear in nature walks upright on two legs. The supernatural wasn’t even a consideration. Ghosts and goblins didn’t exist. What was this then?
The answer came to me in the form of a question at the tail end of the shriek. Literally, the two or three seconds of shriek was seemlessly followed by a “hoo!”
Somewhere in the tree branches above my campsite was an owl. I couldn’t see it, what with it being night, but he gave away his identity with that “hoo!”, tagged onto the end of his scream.
That owls could make this kind of unearthly noise was surprising news to me, so naturally I had to find out more. Many online searches later, I’m fairly confident that my nocturnal visitor was a Great Horned Owl, probably a juvenile.
“Adult owls rarely utter piercing screams but the juveniles are highly expressive. Young great horned owl will scream to the top of their lungs particularly when they are starving. Adult owls will only scream when there’s an intruder.” — greathornedowl.net
There are a plethora of owl audio and video recordings out there, but I’ve only ever found one that comes close, in a weak imitation sort of way, to the shriek I heard. (Which tends to make me think that what I heard was rare indeed). This “Owl Scream” video is 31 seconds long. The owl shriek starts at about the ten second mark, and it lasts much longer, with more variation, than what I experienced. Also, my personal owl prankster was far louder and more human-sounding than the owl in the video.
Lest anyone think my imagination has exaggerated the audible memory of the encounter, there’s one more bit to the story: I subsequently heard the owl shriek on several seperate occasions at the same campsite. While the first time I heard it certainly gave me a start, I was not at all startled whenever I heard it afterwards. The sound is burned into my memory, in a pleasant and pleasing way. Successive rendezvous with my owl friend gave me a different kind of thrill… the thrill of hearing a magnificient raptor, shrieking in the wild. Nature is very cool.
Question of the night: What memorable wild animal encounters do you have? (Bar scenes will be counted among acceptable answers).