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"hoot twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl"


Sep 28 2009, 2:24am

Post #1 of 15 (6650 views)
"hoot twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl" Can't Post

I've become somewhat of a birdwatcher/bird lover and I have run across a discrepancy that makes me wonder if this instruction that Thorin gives Bilbo is one of Tolkien's in-jokes.

Barn owls do not hoot.

We may think of owls as being the creature that makes a sound we call a "hoot." And that is true of what are called "typical" owls. But a barn owl is not a typical owl, and its call is more of a drawn out screech . . . which is why it is sometimes called a "screech owl."

That's right. As far as I can determine, in Europe the barn owl and the screech owl are the exact same bird (true screech owls exist only in the Americas), and no matter what you call them, they don't hoot, they screech.

Have you run across this information in any of your reading? It struck me as something Douglas Anderson would have told us in the Annotated Hobbit, but I don't find any comment there.

Please tell me what you think.

P.S. I haven't really been participating on the boards ever since they were changed. My apologies to many old friends!


Sep 28 2009, 3:23am

Post #2 of 15 (5444 views)
When one doesn't know that screech sound comes from an owl - it can be very disquieting! // [In reply to] Can't Post


Don't get your knickers in a knot; it solves nothing and makes you walk funny.

N.E. Brigand

Sep 28 2009, 5:46am

Post #3 of 15 (5450 views)
Hello, Elf Maven! [In reply to] Can't Post

I have no idea about the owls, but it's very nice to see you.

We're discussing The Silmarillion in the Reading Room, Aug. 9 - Mar 7. Please join the conversation!

This week: "Of the Flight of the Noldor".
How to find old Reading Room discussions.


Sep 28 2009, 12:30pm

Post #4 of 15 (5434 views)
Who whowho whowho who Howdy [In reply to] Can't Post

Elf-Maven. This is the great horned sil giving you a hoot to your hi. Welcome back to your old haunt. Does this meaning you will hover back here now?

It is a curious thing that quote. The barn owl and the screech owl are two different entities. The barn owl is almost twice the size of the screech owl. The barn owl does screech but the screech owl has a variety of calls where one describes it more like a wail. It screeches usually, only when cornered or handled .

So Tolkien's joke could have been that he knew Bilbo was going to be caught and was giving us perhaps a hidden heads-up to the fact because Bilbo would have screeched if he did have the chance if not grabbed by the neck:).

Here is the variety of calls of the screech owl:

The Western Screech Owl is virtually identical to the Eastern.


This is the typical courtship call given by adult owls. Most often given in spring, it is also used throughout winter.


A call sometimes heard during handling.


Usually produced between whinnies.
Territorial Trill


Rarely given in series - a typical hoot.


This strange noise is produced by only a few Screeches when they are approached too closely.


Given as a result of hungry stomachs.
Nestling Food Cry


Defensive scare tactic produced by snapping the tongue against the roof of the mouth. All owls seem to clack.

''Sam put his ragged orc-cloak under his master's head, and covered them both with the grey robe of Lorien; and as he did so his thoughts went out to that fair land, and to the Elves, and he hoped that the cloth woven by their hands might have some virtue to keep them hidden beyond all hope in this wilderness of fear...But their luck held, and for the rest of that day they met no living or moving thing; and when night fell they vanished into the darkess of Mordor.'' - - -rotk, chapter III

May the grace of ManwŰ let us soar with eagle's wings!

In the air, among the clouds in the sky
Here is where the birds of Manwe fly
Looking at the land, and the water that flows
The true beauty of earth shows
With the stars of Varda lighting my way
In all the realms this is where I stay
In the realm of ManwŰ S˙limo


Sep 28 2009, 1:22pm

Post #5 of 15 (5414 views)
Hey, sil... [In reply to] Can't Post

the different entity named screech owl, exists only over here - not in Europe (including the British Isles). Across the pond, "screech owl" is just a nickname for the barn owl . . . obviously because a barn owl actually screeches.

So throughout LOTR (I don't remember whether it's just as true for the Hobbit) Tolkien has put in little language "in-jokes" where he makes comments that work in the text but also have a double-meaning if you know the facts. I wish I could give an example, but my mind seems to be blank at the moment.

I'm wondering if he was making a joke here in the Hobbit, i.e., those who know that they are the same bird would know that Thorin is telling Bilbo to make the same call twice and then once.

I'm hoping one of you well-read posters will be able to help me out.

Good to see you all!

(Don't know whether I'll be a regular again, sil. Work schecule has changed drastically, leaving me without much opportunity.)

"Go where you must go, and hope!"

- Gandalf, TTT The White Rider


Sep 28 2009, 1:25pm

Post #6 of 15 (5434 views)
Wonderful... [In reply to] Can't Post

to "see" you again. I was hoping you'd pop by.

I didn't want to put this post in the Reading Room, but I'm wondering whether there are some folks over there who might have some input?

"Go where you must go, and hope!"

- Gandalf, TTT The White Rider

Goldberry of the river

Sep 28 2009, 8:48pm

Post #7 of 15 (5383 views)
I love owls! [In reply to] Can't Post

There are a few tawny owls around where I live and I often hear them now that autumn is setting in. They are one of the owls that hoot and screech (kind of)! They screech when they want to ward off predators or other owls in their territory. I only seen a wild Barn Owl in England very briefly when it swooped over our car. I have seen a captive/pet Barn Owl quite close up but we didn't getting any closer because it made a strange low kind of hiss at us that was quite scary! Strangely, when my fiance and I were in Egypt we visited an ancient temple at night and saw Barn Owls nesting there! I had no idea they lived in Egypt too! The baby barn owl sat on a roof screeching itself nearly hoarse to its parents who swooped in now and then with food.

I think I have seen the mistake you mention many times. It must have been a joke of Tolkien's because surely such a highly educated man as him would know!

Brian Blessed for Thorin!


Sep 28 2009, 9:10pm

Post #8 of 15 (5433 views)
barn owls screech, screech owls hoot [In reply to] Can't Post

Eastern screech owl. yes there's a western too (not sure about overseas, tho looks like the barn owl does cross over...)

Barn owl


Sep 28 2009, 9:18pm

Post #9 of 15 (5384 views)
Can't find any . . . [In reply to] Can't Post

reference to a European screech owl, except that the term is a nickname for the barn owl. I have now emailed The Owl Trust in the UK to ask for their input.

"Go where you must go, and hope!"

- Gandalf, TTT The White Rider

Forum Admin / Moderator

Sep 28 2009, 10:03pm

Post #10 of 15 (5383 views)
Only the UK [In reply to] Can't Post

would have an Owl Trust! Smile

Each cloak was fastened about the neck with a brooch like a green leaf veined with silver.

`Are these magic cloaks? ' asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder.

`I do not know what you mean by that,' answered the leader of the Elves.

NARF since 1974.
Balin Bows

Forum Admin / Moderator

Sep 29 2009, 1:10am

Post #11 of 15 (5388 views)
*rummages through History of The Hobbit* [In reply to] Can't Post

Well, this is disappointing: not a hoot about those owl-calls in John Rateliff's work! The sentences are in there from the first, but nothing is said about them.

Good to see you back on the Boards, but I am sorry that I can't shed any enlightenment on this fascinating find!


"I desired dragons with a profound desire"

"It struck me last night that you might write a fearfully good romantic drama, with as much of the 'supernatural' as you cared to introduce. Have you ever thought of it?"
-Geoffrey B. Smith, letter to JRR Tolkien, 1915


Sep 29 2009, 8:38pm

Post #12 of 15 (5373 views)
Thanks for welcoming me back, even if... [In reply to] Can't Post

I may only be here to get answer(s) to my question,

I guess I should have mentioned that I had also checked Rateliff as well as Hammond and Scull to see whether I could find any hints. It just seemed as if that is the kind of info about Tolkien that other writers would love to include. But so far, no luck.

"Go where you must go, and hope!"

- Gandalf, TTT The White Rider


Oct 1 2009, 1:32am

Post #13 of 15 (5388 views)
Hoot! Hoot!! Howdy Elf-Maven!! [In reply to] Can't Post

It's so great to see you again!!!!

Nice catch on the hooting and screeching! I guess all I can think is that this was still early in the story when Tolkien's approach/descriptions were geared more towards a younger audience ;) Kids would relate to the owls and the direction Bilbo was supposed to follow, methinks!

*applause* Welcome Back!!!


"There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West."
~Hug like a hobbit!~ "In my heaven..."

I really need these new films to take me back to, and not re-introduce me to, that magical world.

TORn's Observations Lists


Oct 3 2009, 3:46pm

Post #14 of 15 (5343 views)
Hi, yourself, gramma! [In reply to] Can't Post

I know you're right about the effect of the owls line for children, but I'm still curious to find out whatever I can.

I got an answer back from The Barn Owl Trust, which confimed that my information is correct. There are no true screech owls in the UK and that Barn Owls do not "hoot."

So now I'll just have to wait and see whether my question is curious enough to be worthy of a response from the Tolkien Foundation (i.e., from Adam and Christopher Tolkien).

"Go where you must go, and hope!"

- Gandalf, TTT The White Rider

Eowyn of Penns Woods

Oct 5 2009, 3:59am

Post #15 of 15 (5346 views)
I'm very happy to have heard a screech owl the last three nights. // [In reply to] Can't Post


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