A wail in the night

I first heard the screaming around 10 one evening. I was out retrieving my cell phone from the car when a piercing wail cracked the quiet. Someone was out there, in the fields beyond our farm, shrieking in pain. It wasn’t a call for help, it was just this terrifying wail that froze me in my tracks and made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. When it stopped all that was left was thunderous silence. But when she, or it, started up again, I bolted for the house.

It turns out that no one was hacked to pieces in our darkened field. And as human as those screams sounded, they were just the calls of a raptor so small it could sit inside a coffee mug.

That haunting whinny came from a “screech owl” — an itty bitty bird with some impressive vocal chords. It’s shrill call is sometimes described as “the sound of a female in pain or fear.”

Apparently, the Eastern screech owl is a small nocturnal bird that dwells in woodlands bordered by open spaces. These birds like to make short forays into fields, swooping down on mice and moles, bats and small birds. Males have a low-pitched voice — a mellow, muted trill, but they also have a “B-song” and that’s likely the shrill scream that scared the pants off of me.

It nice to know that the wail comes from a harmless bird and not the victim of an ax murder. Still, when I hear that screech I head for the house.