Such vocal attention to detail is hardly surprising. Sound is everything to tawny owls. They exist in loose communities but there are strict rules about spacing and tenancy. Territories lock together as neatly as housing plots delineated by the Land Registry, but having no sense of smell (or Land Registry), theirs is a predominately aural world. Calls are territorial assertions – this is my hunting ground; this is my mate – and like a catchy chorus, they are infectious. Hooting leads to hooting. In the pauses between them, I could hear the faint echoes of other pairs coming from downstream and from the west towards the meadow and town. I imagined the vast linguistic conversations that must flow out, around and across our night-drugged world, the silvery webs of chatter via which disputes are settled and breeding determined.
Books tell us that precisely in the same way we can recognise a change in tone in the voices of friends or family on the phone, owls living in proximity know one another through minute differences in vocalisations. Should a male fail to respond or its call sound weak, word will get around and its territory quickly snatched in a coup of chasing and hooting. But their singing is erotic too and, in established pairs, a male’s crooning stimulates ovulation. The two I could hear had almost certainly paired in the autumn and were probably well into the feathery tangles of mating. Or perhaps even past that, relaxing through post-coital rituals of preening, rest and roost, pressed up flank to flank by their nest site. There’s a softening in behaviour after copulation, a shift away from the talon-flashing late-night flirtations towards mutual trust and friendliness. Maybe the calls I could hear weren’t dirty talk; they’d moved on to rowing about kids, mortgages and money.
Although I didn’t see or hear it move, the male’s calls were suddenly directly above me in the black crown of a pine. I’d never heard an owl as clearly or closely, at the level of valves and throat vibrato, of air being worked to an owl’s purpose, but I couldn’t stay much longer. My own mate was calling; Rosie had been at home in bed for two days with sickness and exhaustion. Now she wanted feeding. The text request was unequivocal: ‘please bring pizza’. It didn’t sound much like the flu to me.