Harriet Tubman, an Unsung Naturalist, Used Owl Calls as a Signal on the Underground Railroad
The famed conductor traveled at night, employing deep knowledge of the region’s environment and wildlife to communicate, navigate, and survive.
by Allison Keyes
Many people are aware of Harriet Tubman’s work on the Underground Railroad and as a scout, spy, guerrilla soldier, and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. Fewer know of her prowess as a naturalist.
At the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Church Creek, Maryland, Ranger Angela Crenshaw calls Tubman “the ultimate outdoors woman.” She even used bird calls to help guide her charges, eventually helping some 70 people, including her parents and four brothers, escape slavery.
“We know that she used the call of an owl to alert refugees and her freedom seekers that it was OK, or not OK, to come out of hiding and continue their journey,” Crenshaw says. “It would have been the Barred Owl, or as it is sometimes called, a ‘hoot-owl.’ ‘They make a sound that some people think sounds like ‘who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?’ ”
That nugget comes to Crenshaw from the park’s historian, Kate Clifford Larson, author of the Tubman biography Bound for the Promised Land. “If you used the sound of an owl, it would blend in with the normal sounds you would hear at night. It wouldn’t create any suspicion,” Crenshaw says.