Well, not my name, hopefully. Probably just some small, defenseless woodland creature’s name, may it rest in peace. (Or pieces. Yuck!) Without my handy owl translation app*, all I know for sure is that some noisy Otus asio slapped me out of bed the other night as he made an infernal racket connecting with his owl peers.
Hasn’t he ever heard of Facebook?!!!
For most of the past month, we’ve been blessed with perfect fall weather—warm, dry days and cool, dry nights. Knowing too well this is just the interregnum between Hot & Sticky and Cold As Heck, we’d been sleeping with the windows open to catch the gentle cross-breeze. Problem is, it’s not just air that comes through those screened openings. Even a gap of a mere two inches lets in the full cacophony of backyard nightlife.** On a typical September eve, that usually means the final appearances of a lively cricket orchestra (they’ve also taken over the garage, including my footwear), the occasional barking dog (hoping to get invited to the shindig) and, ‘round about midnight, the ghostly rat-a-tat cry of the Eastern Screech-Owl.
Click here to find recordings from Cornell’s All About Birds then tell me if you don’t find them a trifle macabre. (Go ahead—I’ll wait.)
Last year when I first heard this cute-but-creepy bird of night, I freaked out that some weird new predator had invaded the backyard. But the ducks freaked not so I waited until the next day to track down the culprit on the Cornell website. Aw, that adorable little four-to-eight ounce critter couldn’t even take on Gladys! Our Welsh Harlequin outweighed this owl by at least five pounds and outspanned it by more than a foot. While certain daytime raptors might be tempted by all that ducky avoirdupois, it would take something more along the lines of a Great Horned before my waterfowl need worry. Consequently, a week or two ago when Screechy showed up again, I recognized the hoot, didn’t give one and went back to lalaland untroubled.
At one o’clock, I woke up again. (Wait, is this like A Christmas Carol or something?!) Instead of the owl, this time I heard the ducks call my name. They went “quack, quack, quack, we’re not happy, quack, quack, quack, we’re really not happy” which I interpreted as “get your butt outta bed now and come help us!” Away to the window, I threw up the blinds (we don’t have sashes—OK, now it’s The Night Before Christmas—I’m soooo confused!!) then peered into the moon-dazzled darkness. It was bright, alright. An almost full moon created the luster of midday on the duck pen below. From two stories up, nothing obvious: no owl, no raccoon, no pleasepleaseplease no coyote. Nothing with claws at all.
Nonetheless, the ducks continued their insistent alarm drone. Thinking of the neighbors–not to mention foxes who may not have known about the ducks until then***–I raced downstairs, grabbed a Maglite for protection—mine! —and stumbled to the yard. The ducks quieted as soon as they saw my flanneled figure but darned if I couldn’t see one shadow out of place or surreptitious scurry. Deciding they may have been perturbed by the screech’s caterwaul, I soothed the birds with several “you’re fine, there’s nothing here” murmurs and, after a minute or two, retreated from the chilly lawn.
At three o’clock, they quacked again. (What happened at 2 o’clock? Have no idea. Slept right through that Spirit!) Hauling myself once more out of happy slumber, I repeated the drill—window/slippers/flashlight/yard—still no predator nor signs thereof. Deciding then that the strong moonlight must be the real issue, I shuffled back to the garage and grabbed a picnic blanket to cover a section of the pen from nocturnal glare. Unfurling the cover freaked the girls a little but now thoroughly exhausted, I couldn’t hang out and retreated bedward thinking Problem Solved.
I thought wrong.
At six AM, when I peeked outside between stubbing my toes and fixing a strong pot of java, I saw neither hide nor feather of our pampered poultry at the unblanketed end of the pen. In the early morning craziness of school/work/home, I didn’t have time to think (too much). The yard and the pen looked undisturbed. Let them sleep in. (Someone should!) Around 7 AM, they finally quacked for breakfast. As I delivered their kibble, I checked for signs of incursion around the enclosure. Not a scrape, hole or scratch mark. A-OK, then.
That evening, the deficiencies of my breezy analysis became clear. For the first time ever, the ducks actually refused to go inside their pen. On most nights, as soon as it gets dark, our practical poultry briskly waddle to bed on their own. All we have to do is close the door and lock up. That night, not only would they not go inside, they ran around like…well, you know like what…and evaded capture.
As I waited for Duck Retrieval Assistance from my sixth-grader, I looked at the pen, looked at the ducks, looked back at the pen and decided they must know something I didn’t. I called for Plan C: The Coop. Now, we rarely use the coop—too hot in the summer and too awkward for the ducks to get into themselves—but in case of nor’easter, deep freeze and/or blizzard, we just chase ’em down and plop ‘em in. The coop did seem like the perfect solution for our present situation. The cozy plastic shell is not only raccoon-resistant, it also lets in very little light. At last, to sleep, perhaps to finish my previous night’s dream!
But, as I slipped into sweet overdue slumber, it finally clicked. If the ducks were that afraid of going back into the pen, it probably wasn’t the moon that kept them up, after all. Something probably was out there.
And probably still is.
*Kidding. That’s a cat translator.
**And that disco ball has got to go.
***What? They’re on Yelp?!
Copyright 2013, Lori Fontanes