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Owls of literature and utility poles

By / April 12, 2002



On four out of five days during the past two weeks, I have had the good fortune to see the same large barred owl, in the same place, at the same time. It has become an evening rendezvous.

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We are both punctual, or at least on the same schedule, and meet up on the Castine Road at about 5 p.m. Whereas I consider it a daily appointment, I cannot be sure what the owl puts down in his daily calendar. He is rather inscrutable.

He is a stout 12 inches tall, with mottled feathers. He usually sits in one of two trees, a maple or an apple, though last night he perched atop a utility pole. Regardless of the perch, he is always surveying the same area, a field the size of a soccer pitch – though he does pause, momentarily, to consider my greeting. I think.

It's hard to tell what an owl is thinking. You do get the feeling, however, that "thinking" is the right word for what he's doing. Perhaps he is thinking that I am rather inscrutable.

The first time I saw any owl was during a walk in the woods last winter. He startled us as he sat in a low branch of one of our maples. Who knows how long he had been watching us. He met our gaze with a penetrating stare and then swooped through the cedars when he had finished sizing us up. You certainly do feel looked at by an owl, almost interrogated by its gaze.

I observe my new owl with binoculars. Call it birdwatching, but owls do not behave the way other feathered species do. Their visage is almost human. With eyes on the front of the head, and a beak that is very noselike between those large eyes, they seem to have a face, rather than a beaked profile.

They stare you back full in the face. They hold your gaze. They spook, but are not spooked. It seems that I am conducting the engagement on his terms, and he feels very secure, thank you very much, to depart the appointment at his convenience.

I've done a little research. The feathers on the leading edge of my owl's wings are serrated, so they do not produce any noise as he swoops down in the darkness on his broad, extended wings. He is a stealth predator, equipped with phenomenal eyesight and keen hearing, however bulky and unsleek his airframe may seem.

According to the United States Forest Service, "If [humans] had eyes proportional to those of the great horned owl, they would be the size of grapefruit and weigh five pounds each."

Owls locate their prey by sound, zeroing in on field mice or voles by comparing the arrival time of sounds reaching their left versus their right ears.

I spent some time on Saturday morning investigating the field where my owl presides. He was sleeping in.

My hope was to find his nest, or at least some owl pellets beneath one of his perches. My daughter's science teacher would no doubt get a couple of good lessons by investigating the diet of this local owl.

Alas, I discovered nothing – and am glad, in a way, not to become too scientific in my understanding of owl life. These are technical distinctions, and an owl is more than the sum of its parts.

My preference is to think in mythological terms, and part of my mythology is what I know of owls from A.A. Milne. Before Harry Potter's mail-carrying owl, Hedwig, came to be the Alpha literary owl, there was Owl. Or WOL, as he spelled it.

Owl was the go-to sage of the "100 Aker Wood," the professor with the pince-nez glasses; the bird with the handsome new bell-rope on his stoop.

When Eeyore lost his tail, Owl had the plan: "The customary procedure in such cases is as follows.... First, issue a reward."

In fact, Owl had more information and explanation than Pooh had use for. "Owl went on and on, using longer and longer words, until at last he came back to where he started."

Owl also had Eeyore's tail: that handsome "bell rope," which he had found hanging from a bush in the forest.

And such is the sense that I have from my owl: That he is, in fact, withholding information, knowing my level of tolerance for long words and detailed explanations.

He knows more than he can say, more than I am prepared to understand. But he must be tolerant and encouraging of our relationship, or he would not continue to be so punctual.

Someday, I expect to see a letter addressed to me, clutched in his talons – or perhaps a button-on donkey tail.

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