David Aaronovitch column

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You must have heard the story. Every evening for a year, computer programmer Neil Symmons would go down to the end of his garden in Stokeinteignhead, Devon, and call to the owls. And the owls would call back. So intense and varied did these crepuscular exchanges become that Mr Symmons - an owl breeder by hobby - began to nurture hopes of finally discovering the hidden language of owls. "Hoo-hoo-hoo," hooted Mr Symmons. "Whoo-hoo-whoo," replied the owl.

As it happens, at exactly the same time, Fred Cornes, a retired company director, was enjoying a very similar (though slightly more passive) twilight conversation with the owl at the bottom of his own garden. "Hoo-hoo-hoo," went the owl. "Whoo-hoo-whoo," Mr Cornes would respond.

For any two men to be spending exactly the same evenings thus engaged may be considered mildly coincidental. What lifts this tale beyond the normal, however, is that Mr Cornes is also a resident of tiny Stokeinteignhead. Indeed, his garden in fact abuts on to that of Mr Symmons. And the obvious explanation of their shared experience would surely be that the one - unaware of events next door - had been communing with the very same garrulous bird who had been so entertaining the other.

Unfortunately this one owl/two men explanation was exploded by a chance conversation between their two wives, who met each other in the driveway and began to chat. One recounted how her lovable, but eccentric, spouse liked to hoot in the garden before bed. The other reciprocated with tales of how her own old feller liked nothing better than a nice alfresco squawk before turning in. The two women looked at each other; the men were called, the case put to them - and each recorded an example of his owl-speak. In the end they were left, inescapably but embarrassingly, with the two men/no owl theory. This will have been particularly galling for Mr Symmons who, as an expert, will have known that some of his calls were - what shall we say? - hoots of avian desire. And (in owl terms) Mr Cornes is probably no beauty.

Embarrassment aside, there are - I think - a number of interesting questions that arise from the adventures of the owl-callers of Devon. In the first place, some people may be alarmed that respectable middle-aged men go out at night and talk to the birds. But let me confess that it does not surprise me, for I too suffer an inexplicable compulsion to talk to animals. On my rambles I moo at cows, baa at sheep (changing the timbre of bleat according to the age and sex of animal: high and broken for lambs, deeper for rams), bark at dogs, whistle at budgerigars and, when no one is looking, squeak at mice. I do this because I am a man, and men must try to communicate - even with animals. We live in a perpetual state of experimentation.

The next question concerns neighbourliness. It took more than 12 months for two sets of neighbours - hamlet dwellers, not denizens of city rookeries - to fall into conversation with each other, so that the true hoots might be discovered. This suggests that connection with those who live on our borders is not a priority in modern Britain.

Three, when such conversation does begin it is invariably the women who begin it. Their husbands - perfectly happy to spend night after night hooting speculatively at strange, unseen birds of prey - will limit their discourse to an occasional half-wave, part-smile and semi-greeting. Could this be our old friend, the feminine social gene, at work?

And four. When, eventually, the women do speak to each other, it is to exchange stories concerning the odd and unaccountable habits of their husbands. Had Mrs Cornes and Mrs Symmons spoken about anything else, then the story would never have emerged.

Finally, and most poignantly of all, one suspects that Fred and Neil have not become bosom pals, and that - in the end - they had far more to say to each other as owls than they did as men.

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