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Wisdom, Knowledge, Birdsong

(Page 2 of 2)

Nightingale, blackbird, who cares?

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Well, yes, I care. I would have been much happier if my nightingales had been the very thing, the true Luscinia megarhynchos. However, I do know an owl when I see one - and sometimes when I hear one too. Which kind of owl is a harder question.

In Britain it seems that the most common are barn owls and little owls. But I think there are more - tawny, long-eared, and short-eared for a start - and I wouldn't know which was which if I saw them (as I have some) in broad daylight balancing sleepily on a telephone wire.

Nevertheless, some of my happiest encounters with birds have involved owls. I used to drive across a lonely low moorland in Yorkshire to one of the local drama clubs' evening rehearsals. More than once, my passage was suddenly crossed by the flight of an owl - in this case, its whiteness suggested "barn owl." Clearly both parties - owl and human - were under the impression that this isolated area was uniquely theirs. No other cars were coming or going - and no other owls.

This owl was as surprised to see me as I was to see it. I knew this by the way it turned its whole head to the right in mid-flight to give me a thorough inspection. I imagined at this moment it was thinking Wow, wait until I get home to tell the brood: I saw a migrating human on the moor tonight. Y'know, with pollution and the ravages of pesticides and the greenhouse effect, you don't see them often nowadays in this part of the world. I suppose they can't get food." Head front again - on it flew, its eve ning definitively enhanced. I was more than glad for it.

Another time, as the dimness gloamed and I was standing outside the kitchen door relishing the cool evening air with its gentle tinge of fresh cow aroma and weary straw, an owl came straight at my head. Clearly it seemed to have thought it was a bat. And as it circled and dive-bombed on each wide-airborne swing, coming more dangerously close to me with its beak and claws, I suspected that it might not have the sonar-subtle nicety of a bat's judgment of distances - and that on its next lap it might collid e on my forehead. Politely, I retreated into the kitchen and left the world to darkness and to it. Battle, it seemed, had been joined. The invader had been repelled. Territorial rights had been reasserted. Owl is King.

Later, I was fascinated to read several diary-noted observations of owls written by 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White. He remarked: "Owls hiss round the Church in a fierce threatning manner: I suppose they are old ones that have young."

MY most recent owl experience was no less unexpected. It happened after I moved to Scotland and had become urbanized again. My wife and I drove out of Glasgow for a look at the countryside one sunny afternoon. Down a winding woodland lane I suddenly yelled "Stop!" Backing up tortuously, both of us stared incredulously at what I had glimpsed.

On an oak too young and small to be called a tree, sitting perfectly still as if someone had stuffed them, were not just two, not even three or four, but five owls. If they had been pigeons we wouldn't have looked twice. Starlings or magpies, never a glance. But never having seen more than one lonesome owl at a time, and that rarely, to see five was quite magical. They showed no sign at all of seeing us. They just sat there among the leaves as if they did so all day, every day.

I know so little about owls! Do they have a gregarious nature at certain seasons? I thought not. Was this perhaps a young family, not yet launched into the world? Perhaps they had been reared by man and released, and hadn't realized they were meant to hunt alone?

Whatever the explanation, that tiny oak tree overloaded with five immobile owls is an image I relish and can't forget.

A quality about owls that I am far from being the first to notice, is, of course, that they seem immensely wise. And immensely knowledgeable. Anyone who can sit as still as that and just stare, must be.