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Monique Keiran: An owl, a pussycat and an ominous 4 a.m. yowl

Mee-yowl. It woke us both. It was 4 a.m., and just outside the window, a cat had shrieked. Seconds later, we heard a sudden, brief flap of wings — big wings — beating against the pavement. Then silence. No further flapping.
TC_356022_web_Great_Horned_Owl.jpg
A great horned owl. Monique Keiran writes that a pair of great horned owls nested in her yard this spring, and she wonders whether their offspring has anything to do with the mysterious cat shrieking and wing flapping she heard recently at 4 a.m. VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Mee-yowl.

It woke us both. It was 4 a.m., and just outside the window, a cat had shrieked.

Seconds later, we heard a sudden, brief flap of wings — big wings — beating against the pavement.

Then silence. No further flapping. No additional kitty protests. Not even the whimpering of a cat in pain.

Nothing.

“That didn’t sound good,” I said with a croak.

“Mphmmph,” Nature Boy said. Then, “Zzzz.”

Later that day, I went to check the ground outside for fur or feathers.

“I already looked,” Nature Boy said. “There’s nothing. We’ll have to see if anyone is missing from the regular cast of cats.”

Nature Boy and I own no cats. And — perhaps more accurately, given the typical cat-titude — no cat owns us.

Our yard, however, is another story. It is owned by at least six and possibly as many as 10 neighbourhood felines. They each treat it as their personal territory, hunting ground, haven, and litter box.

Each cat crosses the yard on its own particular route. Each has its own preferred napping spot — tucked in a cave formed by the dense branches of the heathers, stretched out under the cedars, or sprawled in a warm sunny patch of dirt at the end of the garden.

Each comes by at its own allotted approximate times of day — usually twice, but a couple of the cats make their circuits more often.

Together, the felines share the yard spatially but not temporarily. If one should make the mistake of doing its territory rounds at the wrong time of day and encounter a rival, we hear of it. The resulting hissing, snarling, raised hackles and the occasional tuft of flying fur are melodramatic.

Occasionally, one of the cats catches a mouse or rat. More often, they take out birds. A couple of the cats are useless at hunting.

We know which neighbours are owned by three of the cats, but where the others live and rule is a mystery.

Another critter that considers our yard part of its hunting grounds is the great horned owl. I wrote in March about how a pair of the birds were wooing and cooing in a nearby park, their hoots and whoops providing a soundtrack through the early evenings and long nights.

That pair went on to successfully mate, nest and hatch two chicks, at least one of which survived to fledge. The nest was balanced on a limb in a Douglas fir we could see from our yard. Every day, Nature Boy was out with his binoculars and Go-Pro checking the chicks’ progress.

Then the family decamped. When we didn’t hear them for a couple of months, we feared the worst. Several owls of other species had been found dead in the region in the previous year and are believed to have been killed by eating poisoned rats.

So we were happy when the calling struck up again. The reprised hoots are usually of just one owl, but sometimes a duet happens.

More recently, another call joined the evening concert.

The call the young owl makes is similar to that of fingernails on chalkboards or the shriek of the unoiled hinges of a door too long unopened. It in no way resembles the haunting hoots of the adult of the species. It does, however, add to an owlishly atmospheric soundscape.

The identification was confirmed one evening. We were outside when an adult owl called and flew overhead to settle in a neighbour’s tree. The young owl then squawked, drawing my eyes up to a branch in our Garry oak. The bird sat silhouetted against the dusk sky. It held a large, limp critter in its talons and delicately tore into it with its beak.

“If people love their cats and small dogs, they’d better keep them inside at night,” Nature Boy said.

Which brings us back to the recent shrieking and fluttering at 4 a.m.

One of the older longhaired tabbies — the one that liked to sunbathe at the end of the garden — hasn’t been around lately.

Cats that prowl may run afoul of a night owl.

keiran_monique@rocketmail.com