It is 7 pm on a late summer day and this question is being asked not far away. Is this some impertinent interloper? A request for help? Actually, neither. It is a rather early barred owl, giving the call they seem to use to locate and connect with each other. And it is also a species of the sorts of words, or phrases, or sounds we use to render into English sounds not made by humans.
Barred owls are one of the two species of owls quite common in this part of Texas, the other being the screech owl. While both are primarily nocturnal, both will sometimes be active in daylight hours, the barred owl much more so. Two weeks ago I watched and listened to three barred owls active and flying back and forth between trees along a creek about 6:00 pm. And I occasionally hear screech owls call about this same hour. All of these times are before sunset, though sunset is at 7:16 pm today, so this is much closer to twilight than the owls I heard even two weeks ago.
Phrases like “Who cooks for you?” are the result of the sometimes silly but very helpful attempts people have made to make up words for what an animals call or song sounds like. I was first introduced to this when I was quite young by a wonderful vinyl recording of bird songs entitled “Western Bird Songs of Dooryard, Field and Forest” recorded by Jerry and Norma Stillwell. There is no date on my copy but it is probably the very early 1960s. [Fifty years later there still sell these albums This was how I began to learn bird songs, and Norma Stillwell had a particular gift for making up little phrases to remember a bird’s call by. Like “Where are you all?” and “Sit right down” for various quail, or “Three blind mice” for mountain chickadees. “Up keep keep-er” for Cassin’s kingbird, and “Who cooks for you?” for the barred owl. [I am not exactly sure what this means but a Google search shows me a comment that “Norma’s introduction to the Barred Owl calls (“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?”) was sampled by MF DOOM for the MC Paul Barman track “Anarchist Bookstore, Pt. 1″.” Right. Good things get around, I guess.]
The Stillwell’s began recording bird songs and sounds back in the late 1940s, when this was pushing the envelope of the possible for field recording. Jerry Stillwell had been Chief Technical Editor for the American Petroleum Institute in Dallas, Texas before he retired. In 1948 they bought an early house trailer, packed up their car, and began tens of thousands of miles criss-crossing America trying to record bird songs wherever they could. And Norma Stillwell began to compose little snippets to approximate the sounds those birds made. “Who cooks for you?” is a particularly successful example of this. When you hear a barred owl talking for the first time, this is exactly what it will say. Unless they are ‘caterwalling.’
If you go to this page, you can hear the almost unearthly sounds barred owls can make. I can well imagine that at least some people’s idea of ghosts came from these bizarre sounds. This same site has a great deal of interesting information about barred owls, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the preeminent place in America for information on North American birds.