Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/June 1877/Our American Owls


THE owls are rapacious birds, and in company with all the true birds of prey belong to the great order Raptores. The order branches into two large groups, known respectively as the diurnal and the nocturnal birds of prey. To the Diurnes belong the vultures, hawks, and eagles; to the Nocturnes belong the owls.

If Mrs. Malaprop cannot see why the owl is a "rapturous bird," she can admit its claim to openness of countenance. Once seen, the owl can never be mistaken; its flat, pussy face, and large, brassy cat-eyes, set square in front of the head, are so unbirdlike. It was a London holiday; a shop-woman and her daughter stood before the cage of Nocturnal Raptores at the "Zoo." Said the elder, "See these heagles!" to which the younger replied, "Them isn't heagles, they're 'awks." "If you please," interposed a servant standing near, "them isn't heagles nor 'awks, they're howls. My maister's son once kept one."

The owls are found nearly the whole world over. The books mention about two hundred species, as species are yet understood, and queer specimens are they every one. As a rule, how trim, spruce, compact, and graceful are the falcons, the typical birds of prey! How fluffy, squatty, and dowdyish is the typical owl! Whether it means little or much, it is thus with the Diurnal and the Nocturnal Lepidoptera. As the elder naturalist said: "If any analogy is allowable between different tribes of animals, the owls might be said to resemble moths" (the night-fliers)," and to differ from the diurnal birds of prey as these do from the butterflies" (the day-fliers). These birds have been called "feathered cats," for the owl, cat-like, prowls at night, and steals upon its victim by a quick, fluffy, still swoop or spring. With the silent movements of a spirit, and a voice so super-natural, and with certain associations of time and place, the effect is appalling. As if burned into the brain-tissue with a hot iron, the memory of a certain night experience when but a lad is still fresh and vivid. It was a rural home; sickness had entered at "the witching-time of night." No man around, and the well must stay by the ill; then who should go for the doctor, more than a mile away? Impulsive and sympathetic, I was "the good and brave boy" to volunteer. Not until after midnight was the doctor's house reached, and he was out. Much disappointed that I must return alone, thinking to help the matter, I ventured upon that country-boy expedient known as a "short cut." So the open road was abandoned for a narrow path which led to the old graveyard, which having reached, my timidity began to increase. Cautiously I crossed the stile of the stone-wall, and just as I had entered, the clock in the old church-tower struck one! There was first a startling shock, then a prolonged horror, for the reverberations kept every fibre of my frame in a quivering thrill.

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Fig. 1.—The White or Barn Owl of Europe (Strix flammea).

I think the moon was large, and running low, for my shadow which preceded me was frightfully long, while parallel to it, in most forbidding neighborship, lay the dark shadow of a tall Lombardy poplar, as if reflecting some huge monumental shaft. The grave of a sainted mother was near, and a certain sense of her nearness somewhat soothed the fears of that little night waif. I had now got well beyond the saddening shadow of that shaft-like tree, and the exit from the churchyard was but a few steps off, and my courage was beginning to rise, when lo! from out of that dark shaft behind me burst a savage, piercing scream, as it might be of some goblin sentry: "Who!—who!—who-o-o-oo are you?" How that boy's heart did beat, and how he ran, almost flew, cannot be told. It was still a long way from home, but this was gained at last. He rushed into the house (the folks were up-stairs), and, without reporting to them, he immediately threw himself face downward upon the lounge, and sobbed his fright away, as little people often sensibly do. And now, if better late than never, let it be honestly confessed: that boy for years entertained a very owlish creed, built upon his own experience. He believed in a peculiar graveyard Strix. In fine, it may as well come out—he was a spiritualist, in the strictest, spookiest sense.

The owls are intensely carnivorous. The diminutive ones will feed largely upon insects, and some of the large kinds will eat them occasionally. But Nature has made them for prowlers, and as such we find them fond of flesh, fowl, and fish. So immense is their destruction of the smaller rodents, that they are worth millions to the agriculture of our country. They are the feathered Nimrods of the night. Even the American hare, the rabbit wrongly called, falls an easy victim. Some of the owls can fish, too. But whether hunting, fowling, or fishing, they lack the style of doing it which belongs to the falcon tribe; and when out bugging it is but a bungling business

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Fig. 2.—American Barn-Owl (Strix flammea, Var. Americana).

compared with the professional rôle of the insectivorous birds. Their angling, too, is simply upon quiet waters. They cannot brave "the mutinous winds 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault." In common with all the Raptores they catch their prey with the talons, not with the beak. In eating birds the owl prefers to tear his prey in piecemeal, but a small rodent is swallowed entire, being usually tossed into the air to adjust its position, so that it may fall head first into the bird's mouth. It disappears in one astonishing gulp. A second gulp is usually needed, as the tail is often after the first left hanging from one side of the mouth. The indigested mass forms a roundish ball or pellet in the stomach, which the bird vomits up. These pellets or castings indicate what enormous feeders the owls are. One which I took out of the stomach of a little screech-owl was as big as a walnut, and made up of hair and bones, and had in it the skulls of six mice!

While adopting Dr. Coues's specific nomenclature, let us follow John Cassin's distribution of these birds. To aid both memory and judgment, the following scheme is offered:


Strigidœ.—The Owls.


1. Striginœ.—The Typical Owls.
2. Buboninœ.—The Horned-Owls.
3. Syrninœ.—The Gray Owls.
4. Atheninœ.—The Bird-Owls.
5. Nycteininœ.—The Day-Owls.

1. Among the Striginœ we find no large owls, but here are found the typical birds of the family. Here is seen in its highest perfection of form that owlish peculiarity of the face known as the facial disk; that circle of bristle-like, radiating feathers, which helps the big round eyes to their cattish stare. The eyes, however, of the birds in this group, are not so large as are found in some species in the other groups; but the bills of the Striginœ are somewhat longer. Here we find the white or barn owl of the authors, which is in fact the world's traditional owl. Its portrait is given in Fig. 1, which is Strix flammea (Linn.), the barn-owl of Europe. This and the American barn-owl were long regarded as the same species; but Coues considers it a geographical variety, and, restoring Audubon's name, makes a sub-species of it, thus: S. flammea, var. Americana (Fig. 2). South of a certain latitude the bird is abundant on both sides of our continent, chiefly near the sea. It is sometimes found in New York and New Jersey, where it breeds in trees with the barest apology for a nest, as the eggs are laid upon the débris or cast-up pellets of the bird, which crumble and make a softish but filthy mess. Dr. Newberry states that he saw this bird occupying holes in the perpendicular cliffs on the shores of San Pablo Bay. Wood says the European barn-owl lives in trees and crevices of old buildings, laying its white, rough-surfaced eggs upon a soft layer of its own castings. So intensely pungent is the odor of the nest that it is with difficulty the hand can be washed free of it after meddling with the eggs. The young are described as curious little puffs of white down. The European species is often found feeding a brood of young, while it is hatching another set of eggs. The bird is often tamed, and sometimes makes a really intelligent pet. The American species is not common in the Middle States. We saw one this spring, a gay, attractive bird, in an hotel at Tom's River, New Jersey. It fairly glowed in a warm, bright tawny hue. In reply to an inquiry, we promptly pronounced it a young barn-owl; but its owner was piqued at the idea that anybody should have seen its like before.

2. The sub-family Buboninœ, the eared or horned owls, are so called because of a pair of feathery, ear-like tufts, which are so set upon the head as to have earned for these birds the general name, cat-owls. Their facial disk is not quite perfect. The most famed bird of this group is the great horned-owl (Bubo Virginianus, Bonap.) (see Fig. 3). This bird has usually a white collar round the neck. It is truly

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Fig. 3.—Great Horned-Owl (Bubo Virginianus).

a magnificent bird, of indomitable spirit and large size, being about two feet in length. It does not migrate, and is found pretty much all over North America. It breeds in winter and early spring, nesting in hollow trees and crevices of rocks, and is said to build also on some large branch, or in the crotch of a tree. Dr. Coues gives an interesting account of two unfledged ones, which he captured in Dakota, in the month of June. They were his pets for the whole summer, and traveled with him several hundred miles. For a while they had two different notes, the one of hunger or loneliness, a querulous, explosive syllable, and the other a harsh cry of anger, or remonstrance, when rudely handled. They did not begin to hoot until they were about four months old, and then only while at liberty during the night; for, says he, they became so thoroughly tame that, as their wings grew, enabling them to take short flights, I used to release them in the evening from the tether by which they were confined. They enjoyed the liberty, and eventually would stay away all night. doubtless foraging for themselves for their natural prey, and returning to their shelter behind my tent in the morning.

The adult great horned-owl has considerable vocal ability. At one time it will startle the hearer with a barking like that of a dog; at another time it will utter sounds much like half-suppressed screams, as if of one who is getting throttled; then it will break out into a loud, wild, demoniacal yell of "Waugh O! Waugh O!" startling the woods, and almost terrifying every living thing.

I was myself greatly interested in a pair of these young owls, taken from the nest early in March. Big, fluffy things they were, covered with thick, yellow down; and such eaters, nay, gormandizers is the word! It really seemed as if nothing came amiss to their appetites. The offal of chickens—heads, entrails, gizzards—all went down in quick order. One thing surprised me. As we could not at all times obtain animal food for them, my daughter thought of an experiment. She made balls, as large as hickory-nuts, of moistened meal, the outside being flavored with raw eggs. These they took down quite greedily, and, when very hungry, took the meal-balls without the flavoring. It was necessary to feed them with one's fingers. It was amusing to hear them snap their bills when annoyed or made afraid. The report thus made was pretty loud. They grew finely; but soon got killed, when off on a stray.

The little horned-owl is shown by Fig. 4. It is the Scops asio

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Fig. 4.—The American Screech-Owl (Scops asio).

(Bonap.), and is variously known as the American screech-owl, the red owl, and the mottled owl. It is but ten inches long, though that is even two inches longer than its European relative. It ranges through all the Atlantic States, even, up to Greenland. Nor is it driven away by the clearing off of the woods; and now more than ever it seeks to be a winter denizen of the city parks, attracted, doubtless, by the abundance of English sparrows, which afford it food. This little screech-owl, with its staring eyes and pert, ear-like tufts, has a decidedly cattish look. In truth, it wears a grave, grimalkin cast of countenance, which, in a bird, is quite uncanny and unnatural. A mounted specimen in my parlor was an object of dread to a little girl visiting us from the city. It availed nothing to tell the child that little Motley would not hurt her, while the unbird-like little thing would stare at her so.

To the naturalist Scops asio has been a provoking elf. It is to be hoped that the sage-looking little fellow did not scoff behind his gravity at these learned men, or count any of them asinine whom he so misled by his eccentric freakiness in dress. Coming before a man of science at one time wearing a suit of sober frieze, again appearing in mottled gray, and anon clad gayly in tawny red, how ludicrously easy and inviting was the trick of specie-making! Well, that controversy is over now, and to write the strife down as history would be enough to make Motley bristle to his toes.

The American long-eared owl (Otus Wilsonianus, Less.) (Fig. 5),

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Fig. 5.—American Long-eared Owl (Otus Wilsonianus).

is a fine bird, some fifteen inches long, and is strictly nocturnal. It often breeds in deserted nests of other large birds; but is not over-scrupulous, as it will sometimes drive away the rightful occupant of a nest, and take possession. The facial disk is perfect. Its home is temperate America, up to Hudson's Bay. "Its cry is plaintive, consisting of two or three prolonged notes repeated at intervals."

3. The Syrninœ, or gray owls. In this sub-family is found the largest bird of the species known in America; also the smallest specimen east of the Mississippi. Their tails are large and round. Even for owls, they have large heads, but smallish eyes, and no ear-tufts, or these almost unnoticeable. One of these is represented by Fig. 6, the barred owl (Syrnium nebulosum, Boie). The average size is twenty inches. It is common South. A quaint and lively bird, its actions look like antics, for it is an oddity, even among its own folks. His portrait is that of a gay, unsuspecting fellow. He has queer ways for an owl; he is not sedate enough. In the deep woods, and in broad daylight, when all owldom is abed, he will set up his comical half-laugh, half-cry, "Whah! whah! whah-a-a-aa!" which has in it something of the affectation of an exquisite. He is the dandy owl—as he has been called the buffoon of the woods.

A much graver person, and the giant of American owls, is the great gray owl (S. cinerium, Aud.). His length is thirty inches. The cry is not unlike that of the mottled owl. The bird is common in Canada, and has been shot in New Jersey.

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Fig. 6.—The Barred Owl (Syrnium nebulosum).

As representing the gray owls well, we must instance the brown or tawny owl, so called in England, although its upper parts are ashen gray (see Fig. 7) (S. aluco, Linn.). This bird is found in Great Britain, on the Continent, and in Japan. It is only some fifteen inches long, and of retiring habits, as it loves the deep, dark woods, which it will make ring with its dolorous, wolf-like cry of "Hoo! hoo! hoo!" It is an indiscriminate feeder, regaling itself on slugs, insects, small quadrupeds, birds, and fish. And it is quite a clever fisherman in its way, having been known to carry a pound-weight trout to its young. Its mode of angling is to stand stock-till, and patiently, on a protruding stone in a rippling stream, and, when an unsuspicious swimmer comes along, to invest five talons promptly, and take the venture out in fish.

In this group belongs the genus Nyctale which contains the pretty little saw-whet, or Acadian owl (Nyctale Acadiœ, Bonap.). This is the smallest owl in the Eastern and Middle States, being but eight inches long. Its cry is said to resemble the filing or whetting of the teeth of a saw, so that the traveler hearing it in the woods thinks he hears the man at the saw-mill sharpening the saw. It is also said that its notes resemble those of the little screech-owl of Europe, which would seem to be indicated in the paronomasia., or alliteration of the ancient poet:

"Est illis strigibus nomen; sed nominis hujus

Causa quod horrenda stridere nocte solent."

("The screakers they are called; the reason's found—
They make night hideous with their screaking sound.")

Nor is it all screaking with the saw-whet, for Audubon tells of another note, which is musical, and like the tinkling of a bell. Weight for weight, the robin would probably outdo our little Acadian owl. Nor is it only wee and winsome, it seems to be gentle also. Coues

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Fig. 7.—The Tawny Owl of Europe (Syrnium aluco).

records the interesting fact of one being found occupying peaceably, with a chickaree-squirrel, the same hole in an oak.

Approaching the Western seaboard, we find, under the genus Glaucidium, two diminutive owls, the sparrow-pygmy and the rusty pygmy-owl. These birds are not so large as the thrush.

4. The Atheninœ, or bird-owls. Here is found that oddly-bird-like owl, standing so un-owlishly high on its naked legs, the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia, Bonap.), or Speotyto cunicularia, var. Hypogœa of Coues (Fig. 8). Very much nonsense has been written of this bird. It is said to dwell in amity with the rattlesnake and prairie-dog, which generously shares its hole with bird and snake. The American burrowing owl is essentially a prairie-bird. It occupies, no doubt of choice, the deserted burrows of the Cynomys Ludovicianus (Baird). But if alarmed, as it would be by the presence of man, it would betake itself to the nearest hole for a refuge. In other lands the burrowing owl has no prairie-dogs to take advantage of, and in these places the owls burrow for themselves. They are diurnal prowlers feeding chiefly on grasshoppers, crickets, and field-mice, and not improbably an occasional prairie-dog puppy. One species lives entirely

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Fig. 8.—The American Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia).

west of the Mississippi, on both sides of the Rocky Mountains. India has a number of species, which do their own burrow-making, and are an incessantly noisy crew.

We cannot pass by that little marvel, the Liliputian of them all, named Whitney's owl (Micrathene Whitneyi, Coues), It was discovered by Dr. Cooper at Fort Mojave in 1860. This owl is an arboreal bird. It is partly diurnal in habit, and feeds on insects. The little thing is hardly as large as the average sparrow.

5. The Nycteininœ, or day-owls. This small group has but two genera, with one species in each. But here occurs the very handsomest species of the American owls. Fig. 9 shows that splendid bird known as the snowy owl, the arctic owl (Nyctea nivea, Gray). It has been found with a length of twenty-seven inches. Some adults are nearly all white—hence, as a show-bird, it is a favorite. We saw not long since a fine mounted specimen in a New Jersey tavern. "What a splendid bird!" was our remark to an individual who practised at the bar. "Yes, fine enough when stuffed. But, you see, we had to do it, he got so nasty." We observed that the plumage did not indicate it. The man replied, quickly: "Oh, there was no rummage in him. We kept him tethered. All the rats and mice we ketched was given him—and the way he'd chuck 'em in wasn't slow! But, as I said, he got so nasty." We asked for an explanation. "Well, you see, he got so nasty that, just as lief as not, he'd put his talents right into your hand when you was afeeding him. You see, the bird got so nasty that he was mean." We replied that it was the first instance of that kind of misdirected "talents" that we had ever heard of, and we agreed with him that it wasn't nice at all. "Nice?

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Fig. 9.—The Snowy Owl (Nyctea nivea).

Not much!" he rejoined. "As I said, the bird got too nasty, so we killed him, and had him stuffed." He told me the bird was caught in Warren County, and that they used to be plentiful a good many years ago.

Probably, November, 1876, will go down in ornithological history as the time of the famous southward raid of the snowy owls. Clad as they are to resist the arctic cold, and such excellent hunters—whether by day or by night—it would seem that want of food must have started these birds on their journey. Could the severe arctic winter, so disastrous to Captain Nare's expedition, have made this scarcity? It was during a pleasant autumn that these birds came upon us. There must have been some sixty shot in my own vicinity. A string of thirteen hung by a store in New York; there were many in the markets. One taxidermist in this city, it is said, had sixty left with him to be stuffed. Another in Philadelphia had about as many. As early as September flocks of ten to fifteen were seen in different places in Massachusetts. A number were shot in the city of Boston, and others were seen perched on the churches and house-tops. For several days they were common in the city and vicinity of Portland, Maine, where not less than one hundred and fifty were shot. A worthy farmer near my home was taking his family to church. A snowy owl sat on a fence by the road, caring nothing for the passing wagon. The good man fretted, "If it wasn't Sunday, I'd bag that chap!" Probably the fellow in Washington Territory was less conscientious, for he filled two barrels with these noble birds! Almost everywhere the village taxidermists in the Eastern and Middle States had a harvest of employment. Says Ruthven Deane: "Many of the specimens were in exceedingly poor condition. Of some two hundred examined by me, nearly all were in very dark plumage, and none wore that almost spotless dress which we occasionally see."

One of these was brought by a pupil to my lecture-room in November. It was a fine fellow, but was badly hurt by the shot. It was given in charge of a young friend, who, as bird-artist, knew the worth of his prize. He kept it in his room, which served for studio and sleep. The bird had the freedom of the room, and became quite gentle, permitting itself to be fondled. One night it persisted in getting on its master's bed. This the jealousy of the hunting-dog could not stand, and every time the bird flew on the bed the dog jumped on and fought it off. At last the young man told the dog to keep quiet, when the bird came again, and, squatting by the side of its owner, kept still for the whole night. It was a great feeder. A weasel which the youth had meant to mount was stolen and devoured by the bird. Muskrats, rabbits, and birds, all went the same way; and to see him dine was a droll sight. He would open wide his great brassy optics, then insert his beak into his prey, then, shutting his eyes excruciatingly tight, would lift his head high, and gulp down whatever he had detached—all of which would be executed in the most grotesque batrachian style: for, who ever saw a frog swallow an insect but that he went it blind? Occasionally it was let out upon the snow. This was indeed a luxury, it was so like home; and the bird would swallow the snow in mouthfuls. A fine owl is this arctic bird! It will smite ducks and grouse on the wing, like a falcon; will swoop upon a hare on the ground, and dart at a fish in the shallows; and it does most of its hunting by day.

In this group occurs also that truly fine bird, the Canada or hawk owl, which is some sixteen inches long. It is often called, from its diurnal habit, the day-owl; for, though an owl, no owler is he. His work is done up clean by daylight, and it is extremely rare to hear of his being abroad at night. Looking now at Fig. 10, the Canada owl (Surnia ulula, Bonap.), how easily, upon a casual glance, might one mistake it for a hawk! Like some of the falcons, it will watch from the top of a tree, and will swoop thence upon its prey. It is also arboreal in its nesting, and, with its mate, is splendidly courageous when the safety of person, or home, or young, is in danger. There is not much of the owlish face in our Surnia. The facial disk, so prominent an owlish trait, is by no means marked. Still, for all his looks and ways, this same Surnia is a true owl. To an unusual degree for his family, he is trim, compact, and graceful. Its favorite home is

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Fig. 10.—The Hawk-Owl (Surnia ulula).

in the arctic regions, where "it feeds chiefly on the field-mice (Arviculœ) which swarm in the sphagnous vegetation of those boreal lands; also upon small birds, grasshoppers, and other insects." In severe winters it comes southward, even to the Middle States.

The old philosophers said Nature abhorred a vacuum. Does it not appear from our owlish résumé that Nature has an aversion to the abrupt and disconnected? Is it not noticeable that, however natural any two great related groups of animal forms may be, they are not separated by sharp and wholly distinctive lines? There is a shading at the edges into each other. In Biblical speech, the progress of the Divine scheme is literally "little by little," and the lower group gives of the higher one, as Bishop Horseley in a different connection has said, "elegant adumbrations of sacred truth." Only when the extremes of the groups are set in contrast will the family differences best appear. Let one but look a barn-owl and a bald-eagle full in the face of each, and how clear their differentiation! But these are the typical representatives here brought face to face. Suppose we look a moment at Fig. 11, of the marsh-hawk, or harrier (Circus cyaneus, Linn.), and then recur to Fig. 10, of the day-owl, or Surnia. Now the differentiation almost fades away. How very like they are! But Surnia belongs to a more lowly tribe than does Circus. The marsh-hawk is an unmistakable falcon, and the other is assuredly an owl. But as respects this harrier, however clear as a whole the title to his rank may be, there is a strange mix-up in the chirography of the instrument. As to wings and tail and beak and talons, he bears the insignia of a grand connection. It needs an expert to read the document, which, if it shows relation to a noble stock, shows also that Sir Harrier has very ignoble ways. His very mode of hunting is a disgrace to the name of falcon. He will course low in air like a base-born buzzard, and will dog about a small area like a hound after a rabbit, backward and forward, round and round, crossing and recrossing his course, literally scouring a patch of shrub or bush, or perhaps tall reeds or dank meadow, and harrowing the poor occupant so vulture-like, and so utterly unlike the decisiveness of action and brilliancy of dash of the genuine falcon that, with the whir of a rifle-shot, swoops from its observatory in the sky. Not one of these royal points can the marsh-hawk claim. He harries or worries his victim, and so comes honestly by his unenviable name. Although, as a high authority declares, "he is no weakling nor coward," yet he is for his belongings a mean, bullying fellow. Let us watch him from this tree.

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Fig. 11.—Marsh-Hawk, or Harrier (Circus cyaneus).

He is harrowing a meadow-hen with her young. He has been at this worriment full fifteen minutes. Now he makes a pounce for one of the little ones. But the mother-bird proves herself a heroine on the spur, and puts him to a mean retreat. And then what hawk but he, sloven that he is, would nest upon the ground so vulture-like? There is also a tendency to fluffiness in his plumage, and a cattish noiselessness in his movements, and his queer phiz has a little of the owlish cast. Well, there is no use in denying it, it is true of him, and all these harriers, as Dr. Coues observes, "They look like owls, behave like buzzards, and nest like vultures." Hence, "the marsh-hawk combines, in a notable degree, the characters of several raptorial types, being, in particular, a link between hawks and owls."

But we have not touched bottom; and maybe these are some of His ways which are past finding out. So, having reached the deep waters, we will take that preacher's exordium to his knotty text, and make it the peroration of our discourse: "Brethren, there is mighty deep Scripture here!"