You may recall that, in The Hobbit, Thorin issues a very specific set of instructions as he despatches Bilbo to investigate the camp of the three trolls.
“You must go on and find out all about that light, and what it is for, and if all is perfectly safe and canny,” said Thorin to the hobbit. “Now scuttle off, and come back quick, if all is well. If not, come back if you can! It you can’t, hoot twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl, and we will do what we can.”
Off Bilbo had to go, before he could explain that he could not hoot even once like any kind of owl any more than fly like a bat.
I was chatting with friends earlier today about owls and suddenly recalled this line about Screech Owls and Barn Owls. And I wondered, what do they actually sound like? Are they that different?
As, someone who lives in the Southern Hemisphere, I’m not very au fait with the ins and outs of Northern Hemisphere bird species. So I started doing a little bit of internet research.
Turns out that it’s a little more complicated than it seems.
Barn Owls are found in the UK. Specifically the Western Barn Owl. As a generic type, Barn Owls are one of the most widespread types of owls in the world. Various species of Tyto alba are found even in places as far-flung as Australia (I’ve seen the Eastern Barn Owl out here in the wild).
On the other hand, it turns out that Screech Owls are not native to the UK. Screech Owls — or, more accurately, Megascops sp. — are only found in the Americas. All (according to Wikipedia) 20-odd different species.
So, why does Tolkien mention of Screech Owls in The Hobbit?
Well, it also turns out that in some parts of the UK, Barn Owls are also known (in the vernacular) as Screech Owls. Why? Because the call of a Barn Owl is actually a piercing screech — not a hoot. (Confusing, isn’t it?)
This raises a couple of possibilities.
The first is that when Tolkien talks about Screech Owls, he’s referring to the American Megascops genus. In which case, if you want to know what a Screech Owl sounds like it’s a lot this recording over on Cornell Labs.
The second is that Tolkien is making an in-joke — and one that his UK readership would have completely understood when The Hobbit was published.
It’s worth recalling that at this point of The Hobbit that Thorin has little regard for Bilbo’s talents and usefulness — “He looks more like a grocer than a burglar!”. So in this instance, it’s not impossible that Thorin is mocking Bilbo knowing full well that the sound of a Barn Owl and a Screech Owl are one and the same. And the attentive UK reader would understand the subtle put-down that Bilbo himself doesn’t get.
Which is more likely? Well, I lean toward the second because we know that Tolkien was very fond of little in-jokes and linguistic puns. (For example, the name Smaug derives from the Germanic verb “smugan” which means “to squeeze through a hole.”).
On the other hand, as far as I know, it’s not something discussed in the Annotated Hobbit.
But I’m not the first to ponder this. Perhaps some ornithologists or knowledgable Tolkien scholars out there have more to offer?