Barry Smith: The call of nature can cause embarrassment |

Barry Smith: The call of nature can cause embarrassment

Nobody talks about the real danger of the outdoors.

Oh sure, you hear about the wild-animal attacks and the snake bites and the scorpion stings, and about the avalanches and the flash floods and the rock slides, and the giardia and the dehydration and the sunstroke … but what about embarrassment?

Check your trail map index for “embarrassment.” Nothing, right? Thumb through the chapters of any wilderness how-to guide, and the perils of embarrassment will not be mentioned.

Why? Hey, I’m as mystified as you. Personally, I’ve suffered more in the outdoors at the hand of embarrassment than from all the elements put together.

My mind drifts back …

A few years ago I was camping with some friends down in southern Utah. On the first night, right around dusk, I heard the old familiar “Ohh, ohhh … ohhhh … ohhhh” sound coming from a nearby owl.

“Hey everybody, listen,” I said, eager to point out the sound of this mystical bird to my friends.

“Oh yeah,” Peter said. “I hear it. A mourning dove.”

Thinking he was joking, I went on to spin tales of hearing owls like this one outside of my window when I was young.

“That’s not an owl, it’s a mourning dove,” someone spoke up.

How sad, I thought, that someone could be so ignorant as to not be able to tell the difference between a dove and an owl. I decided to go easy on them … perhaps they weren’t as accustomed to the outdoors as I was.

“What are you, a moron? That’s an owl! Listen! Whoo, whoo … whoo … whoo! What’s the matter with you?”

“Actually, it’s more of a cooo, cooo, cooo, Barry. It’s a mourning dove,” someone else pointed out.

“Oh yeah, well if it’s a mourning dove, then how come it’s out at night?” I asked, folding my arms smugly and leaning back against a log.

“No … not morning, mourning,” Peter said. “M-o-u-r-n. Don’t you hear how sad it sounds? You know, mournful?”

I was quickly running out of allies, but the fact that EVERYONE was wrong was just going to make my victory that much sweeter. I decided to appeal to their emotional side.

“I know owls, that’s an owl, and none of you know what the hell you’re talking about!”

Can’t argue with that, I figured. End of discussion.

“Hey, look,” Peter announced. “You can see it perched in the branch of that tree over there.”

I squinted my eyes and made out the tiny speck silhouetted against the setting sun.

“Wait a minute,” I said, incredulous. “You think that THAT bird is making THAT hooting noise? OK, let’s go settle this right now.”

We all got up from around the campfire and walked slowly and quietly toward the tiny bird. The “owl” sound got louder. Before long we were close enough that I could actually see its little beak open and its little birdy Adam’s apple bob up and down each time I heard the “owl” call.

How could I explain this? A little dove was making sounds that I knew from childhood to be the call of an owl. Bird ventriloquism? Doubtful. Mass hallucination? Not likely. I’ve just completely embarrassed myself? Bingo!

As we went back to the campfire, there was a feeling of mirth among the others in the group that was not present before this owl/dove episode began. I was glad that they had no problem finding the brighter side of my humiliation.

I was quiet when we sat back down, poking at the fire with a stick.

“Hey, what’s that sound?” Peter asked, smiling. I didn’t hear anything.

“Oh yeah, I hear it now. It’s a bird call,” someone chimed in. “What kind of bird do you think THAT is, Barry?”

“Crow,” I replied. “And I hear them’s mighty good eatin’.”

[Barry Smith’s column runs in The Aspen Times on Monday and Thursday. His e-mail address is, and his very own Web page is at]

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