Friday, February 10, 2006

The Owl

First published 1-27-06

The big bird broke me out of my daydream as it flew silently into my field of vision. I’d been sitting in my office and staring down across the field at the lower tree line when the creature landed on a limb to my left. It was larger than any wild bird I’d ever seen that close up. I leaned toward the window for a better look as it turned its head in my direction. It was an owl. He (I think he was a he) seemed to sense my presence behind the glass because he looked right at me. I froze and stared back at him, amazed. When I slowly leaned back in my chair, he flew to another tree further away. I reached for my binoculars and watched him looking from side to side and waiting for something resembling a meal to scurry across the snow below him.

It was only mid-afternoon and I’d always thought owls were nocturnal creatures. While I considered that, several blue jays flew into the tree where the owl first landed and jumped around from limb to limb, obviously agitated. Then five of them flew to other trees around the owl’s new perch - above him and below him. He kept turning his huge head around trying to keep the blue jays in view. Then several crows appeared and joined the remaining blue jays, raising a ruckus with their cawing. A couple of them flew over to join the braver jays harassing the owl. I reached for my digital camera, zoomed in and snapped a couple of pictures before the owl got fed up with the harassment and flew deeper in the woods. I hooked up the camera to my laptop, downloaded the images and pulled them up on the screen. This was way more interesting than what I’d been trying to write about. The images were grainy, but I could see a few more details than I noticed through the binoculars.

It dawned on me that I could search the web for information about owls, so I Googled “Owls in Maine.” After a few clicks, I had an image that looked a lot like the ones I’d taken. It was a Barred Owl, or “Strix Varia,” also known as a Swamp Owl, Hoot Owl, Eight Hooter, or Round Headed Owl. I hit a link beside the image and heard the owl’s call: “hoo, hoo, too-HOO; hoo, hoo, too-HOO-ooo.” Or, as the site spelled it out: “‘Who, cooks, for-you? Who, cooks, for-you, all?’ The last syllable drops off noticeably.” This was definitely the hooting my little grandson and I listen to, and attempt to mimic, while we’re sitting in the porch swing during early spring evenings. We cuddle in the dark with a blanket over us and try to answer the calls over the distant woods.

The Barred Owl can have a wingspan of over four feet and sits more than two feet high. I’m not sure if my owl was that big, but I wouldn’t be surprised. They are nocturnal, but will hunt on cloudy days before evening and it was cloudy that day. Barred Owls like voles and deer mice which abound in my field. They also like to hunt squirrels, and I can certainly identify with that. There were very few squirrels around my yard this past summer and I thought it was because I’d shot so many, but it looks like I’d had some help from old Mr. Owl. He also eats rabbits, weasels, snakes, woodpeckers, partridges, and jays. No wonder the blue jays were getting so nervous. Then it occurred to me that I learned all this without once having to get out of my chair. After the owl first flew into view, I could capture its image, listen to its call, determine its species, its size, range, life span, mating habits, diet, and preferred habitat - all without getting off my butt.

While I was marveling at wonders of today’s information technology and savoring the contrast between the digital equipment in my office and Nature’s wild carnivore on the other side of my window, the owl flew out of the woods and reclaimed its perch overlooking the field. I watched as he turned toward me again with concentric rings around his eyes and and I wondered if owls really were as wise as they appeared to be. I sincerely hoped they were because I’m in need of a heavy dose of wisdom lately and maybe I this owl experience was some kind of omen. Again, the blue jays and crows harassed him and I admired how he seemed to bear it serenely. He was trying to put food on the table (or the branch) while other creatures were doing their best to bother him.

The phone rang, interrupting my muse. I picked it up and a friend from Florida asked me what I was up to. I told him all about the owl and added that I still hadn’t gotten off my rear end and I could describe my experience to someone a thousand miles away. Modern technology is great, but I doubt that it will ever substitute for Nature’s ancient wisdom.

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