Compared to TV, real life is a hoot

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We can't be uniquely daft, can we? Surely we're not the only couple in the world who, watching a film on TV, have leapt up to answer the phone only to find it was ringing in the film? We now try to avoid this occasional moment of domestic farce by first looking at each other questioningly, wondering. And then we rush for the phone because - this time - it's for real. But usually by the time we grab it the caller has hung up.

It does seem that we probably are unique in another way. A few nights ago, we were lazily watching an old Columbo film (reruns seem prevalent again over here in Britain). During a nighttime episode, when the man himself in the shabby raincoat was investigating something in a suspect's house, an owl started hooting very loudly and repeatedly. We looked at each other questioningly.

"Is that in the movie?" I asked. "Why would they have an owl hooting? Doesn't seem like a Columbo background to me."

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"I'm not sure."

She was so unsure that she turned the volume down.

The owl continued to hoot.

It was so close to our windows that it might almost have been asking to come indoors. Perhaps it was perched on a window box. Its hooting seemed almost to be aimed at us.

This sort of behavior is not something that the owls in our neighborhood often indulge in. Well, never before, really. In fact, my distinct impression is that our owl or owls are shy. I have only heard them hooting about once a year, on a night or two. I even wonder if they fly in to the area for a quick visit, or actually live here.

Because evidence of him is so infrequent, his call always sends a minor thrill down my spine. I find owls strange. But I never think of them as spooky - though it does seem to be clear moonlight when they call out, which undoubtedly indicates a romantic attitude. To me, their call (and I am not talking about owls that shriek) is what Shakespeare called "a merry note."

My fascination for these birds started pretty early, at age 5 or 6 perhaps. My older brother introduced me to an owl pellet, found like a precious truffle in the leaves under an oak. Biology was not destined to be one of my favorite subjects at school. I was more in favor of school frogs being cut loose than being cut up. That was more my idea of experimenting with nature: Let it be. But the owl pellet, containing all the precise, indigestible fragments of the owl's lunches and dinners, held me spellbound for some reason as my brother took it apart and laid it out on paper for analysis. Perhaps I hadn't yet learned to have fellow feeling for voles and small birds and beetles.

I first heard our local owl about six years ago. My ornithology wasn't up to knowing then that tawny owls, far from preferring remote rural habitats, actually like towns, and enjoy the proximity of humans. Previous encounters with the species had been when I was living in farm country in Yorkshire. I'd notice them sometimes perched unsteadily on telephone wires in broad daylight, as if they had been caught out by the rising dawn and would now have to hold out uncomfortably until the relief of nightfall returned. They looked like fish out of water.

Another owl divebombed me from the big barn across the farmyard, presumably a defense display on account of a brood newly hatched or recently flown from the nest.

Then there was the flying white-faced owl that eyed me with a sidelong glare as I drove to evening class across the wild grassland. Those Yorkshire owls didn't much appreciate humans.

My immediate reaction on first hearing our Glasgow owl was simple incredulity. Here I was 10 minutes from the epicenter of Scotland's largest city, with the continuous roar of motorway traffic no more than half a mile away, and an owl was hoo-hooing, with happy abandon, close at hand but invisibly in the leaf-dark. I instantly put it down to pranking children.

But those "children" never seemed to grow up. More or less annually, for a night or two only, the hoo-hooing would suddenly recur. I began to think there really might be genuine owls around here after all.

And then, maybe three years ago, on Sutherland Avenue, I not only heard it once again, but I actually spotted it. I froze, holding my breath. It didn't move a feather. Our dogs waited with bored patience, wondering why I had been turned to stone. High up in a lime tree, perched, motionless, like a gowned lawyer, it stared down at me as coolly as I stared up at it admiringly. We were sizing each other up. I don't know quite what it made of me - perhaps it had secretly seen me before, anyway - but it seemed to me to look remarkably knowing (or terribly wise as folklore often claims) and also a bit uncanny.

After some time it tired of this standoff, and, deciding I was too big a mouse to digest easily, it flew to another tree with a gliding grace quite unexpectedly at odds with its tubby physique. And then it eyed me from there. After a while, it swung through the air to another tree farther off, and started hooting again.

I felt peculiarly moved. Real life is so much more convincing than TV. Sorry, Columbo.

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