I’ve still never seen a boreal owl. For that very reason, I’ve spent an awful lot of time listening hard to recordings of the song. I even, for a while, and to the occasional consternation of my field companions, used that slow liquid tremolo as the notifier on my mobile cellular telephone.
Such things are called “ring tones,” a linguistic relic from the way-back days when phones jangled. But I can assure you, the song of the boreal owl sounds nothing like a bell. Not like a jingle bell or a sleigh bell or a church bell or a desk bell or a school bell.
Or does it?
I ran across this when I was — naturally — looking for something else.
Linnaeus assigned it the scientific name Aegolius funereus for its mournful cry, like the “slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell.” Actually the call of the Boreal Owl is a sharp and chipper “hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-HOO!” in the same rhythm and pace as a winnowing snipe — Linnaeus may have been influenced more by folklore than careful observation.
I’m gratified to find the author agreeing with my assessment of the bird’s unbell-like song: while I might have used different adjectives, the transliteration works for my ear and mind. But what about all that stuff surrounding it? Is big bad Linnaeus really to blame for this, too?
A good first clue is how un-Linnaean that phrase “the slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bill” is — not to mention the fact that it is in English. It’s easy enough, too, to figure out that the great Swede named the species not for its voice but for its somber plumage; the diagnosis in the Systema naturae — which, by the way, does not use the name Aegolius at all, as Kaup would not erect that genus for another 70 years — is limited entirely to the bird’s appearance:
Neither in the Systema nor in the Fauna svecica does the taxonomer adduce any sort of “folklore” about this species: instead, the latter work informs us, the description relies on a painting — one assumes that it was a silent painting — made by his teacher Rudbeck.
My friend google takes you to some very unusual places if you try to find out who is really responsible for the notion that boreal owls sound like bells. Eventually, though, we arrive — with a forehead-slapping “of course!” — at Ernest Thompson Seton. In 1910, Seton wrote about “a new and wonderful sound” he had heard on a trip to the “arctic prairies” along the Athabasca River:
Like the slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell it came. Ting, ting ting, ting, and on rising and falling with the breeze, but still keeping on about two “tings” to the second, and on, dulling as with distance, but rising again and again…. Ting, ting, ting, ting, it went on and on, this soft belling of his love, this amorous music of our northern bell-bird.
Seton’s traveling companion, Edward Preble, identified the sound as “the love-song” of the boreal owl.
More likely, misidentified: that description is pretty clearly of the tooting song of a northern pygmy-owl, not of the dripping-water trill of a boreal. Whether the identification was correct or not, though, Seton’s description of the song, down to the very “ting, ting, ting” of it, has remained influential in the ornithological and, shall we say, other literature.
And sometimes, as in this excerpt from The Book of North American Owls, some people have put two and two together to leave the rest of us at fives and sixes.
Aegolius funereus owes its species epithet to its dark color. But look what happens when, as above, someone combines Seton’s owl’s tinging with an apparent bewilderment about the name. The “bell-like” song is analyzed as a “tolling,” the term for the slow striking of a deep-voiced bell on occasions of great solemnity. Thus, logically, the bird must be funereus because, well, its voice is funereal.
A not entirely lucky guess leads us to the culprit who first misleadingly put Seton’s song description together with the Linnaean name. Experience teaches that unattributed etymologies are almost always dependent on Choate, who writes of the boreal owl — quoting but not crediting Seton:
L. funereus, “mournful,” as its call has been likened to the “slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell.”
It turns out that this Linnaeus-Seton mashup has an equally incorrect competitor in the American tradition. Both Terres in the Audubon Encyclopedia and Gruson in his Words for Birds claim that the species epithet refers to the bird’s voice, not, however, because of its tolling peal but to an otherwise unattested scream,
as if wailing the dead.
I was disappointed to find Terres attributing this etymology to Coues, who certainly knew better. Happily, a look at the sources absolves Coues: he does indeed write that the adjective in question is
applicable to an owl, either regarded as a bird of ill omen, or with reference to its dismal cry, as if wailing the dead;
but he is talking here about a different species entirely, not the boreal owl at all.
In both cases — the owl as funeral bell, the owl as keening mourner — a little careful reading would have gone a long ways. Sometimes that appears to be too much to ask, though.
Especially when the modest truth threatens to get in the way of a good story.