When friends visit the shack they sit on the futon looking east through the glass patio doors at the ravine and me, while I sit in my chair looking west at a more solid shack wall and them. My friend Lonny visited the shack and while talking looked past me. His face changed, eyes got wider, mouth formed an O. I knew he’d seen something.
“Look behind you.”
“Right there in the tree by your woodshed.”
I looked harder. Slowly the figure of a big ass owl emerged sitting calmly on the branch of a maple twelve feet away. His head rotated like the girl in The Exorcist, first looking at us, then looking the opposite direction, then at the ground all around, and then back to looking at the two men standing in the shack, staring in fact, for a long time.
The name of that species of owl, not really big ass but beginning with a “b”, is technically the barred owl. It was the second time that week I’d known something was around by seeing people react rather than seeing the thing to which they were reacting.
At a meeting in a DeKalb church basement last week the same sort of thing happened. In the middle of a churchy discussion, while I was sitting with my back to windows at the top of the wall, talk stopped and the eyes of people across from me began tracking something else. Whatever it was, by their faces I imagined it to be fascinating.
“A fox just walked past the windows,” a woman said.
I didn’t see the fox, but it wasn’t necessary to realize its impact. I felt it was there. When humans encounters wild animals it’s a showstopper. I think there is something wonderful about it. Animal images, and the way we feel when wild animals are near, stay with us. Especially when they are big.
Lonny got a great picture of the owl.
Seeing that owl up close nails down evidence of its existence in the ravine outside the shack. I think it’s most likely this very owl, or a member of its family, that I heard two summers ago. My son Dean and I were having drinks and conversation in the shack, windows open, nice breeze, when our talk was interrupted by a loud series of hoots.
“What the heck is that?” Dean said.
“Sounds like a hoot owl,” I replied.
Hoot owl is redundant slang for most all owls, because hooting is what they do. Hoots are the lingua franca of owls, except for screech owls, which of course, screech. English can be so direct and to the point can’t it? Different kinds of owls possess, like a copyright, distinctive sounds. Here is the basic hoot of every barred owl that ever lived, according to those in the know. Dean and I confirmed its identity that night by googling owl hoots and matching what we heard to the Audubon society’s recording. Click on this link to hear it.
Hoot analyzers liken the barred owl’s song to this phrase.
Who cooks for you?Who cooks for you’all?
Nine syllables, the accent rising on” you” at the end of the first line, falling on “all” at the end of the second.
I identify with animals closely. I think it’s because of growing up on a small farm and living closely with domesticated animals. Wild animals are a different deal, especially birds. Close encounters tend to be rare, and because of that more precious. I especially envy the freedom of wild birds, their ability to fly away at a moment’s notice, their songs.
I suppose I feel close to birds because I love to whistle. Searching the library of remembered songs in my brain for patterns of notes, and then hitting those notes in a whistled song, clears my head of other nagging thoughts. I wish it was the same for song makers like the barred owl, but I’m afraid they have a different experience.
We tend to ascribe human qualities to animals, for example assuming the barred owl hoots as an expression of joy and creativity. Sadly, bird experts think birds’ songs are a compulsion. Birds are born with brains wired to sing only a handful of songs with specific purposes. Usually finding each other and a few simple warnings.. There is not a speck of originality in my local barred owl’s hoot. Instead it’s the ultimate ear worm. Throughout its entire life it sings those same nine syllables over and over. Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you’ all? It must be driving him crazy. But there I go again, equating animals with humans.
If I could take on the form of a barred owl for a day, retaining my human brain of course, I’d find my neighbor in the ravine, land on a branch next to him, and teach him new songs. Centuries of genetically inherited hoots could be complemented by new tunes. My first choice for the barred owl would be I Am the Walrus by the Beatles. There’s a line in that song tailor made for a barred owl.
Coo coo kachoo ka coo coo kachoo
I had a long moment one afternoon with a red fox in my yard in early spring. He was in the sun just past the patio. Not at all wary of being so close to the house, he stretched, did a downward facing fox, laid in the grass, his legs splayed out behind him, and looked directly at me for a long time. It was sort of a stare down. And then he yawned, got up, and trotted slowly into the ravine. He was completely relaxed. At ease with life. My kind of animal.
I saw him or another fox (not to imply that all foxes look alike, but I couldn’t swear it was the same one) just a few days ago. My wife saw him first. This time he was smelling the ground, maybe on the trail of another animal. Again, he was completely at ease among our bird feeders, flowerpots, picnic tables, Weber grills, and assorted human possessions in the back yard. Could I walk around a fox’s dens as casually? This time he sauntered casually, slowly in a circle, and magically, disappeared under my shack. I’d love for him to live there, he and I co-existing peacefully. If he would have me that is.
Oddly the attraction of both the barred owl and red fox is probably due to our oak trees and the animals that live off their acorns. We have a big red squirrel population, but more numerous than them are the ground squirrels. My wife calls them chipmunks. They’re so common we hardly notice them anymore.
Manic little guys, the ground squirrels dart around, scurry under the steps, disappear into the ground, dig holes in my wife’s potted plants, and are always on the go and very busy. If we leave a door open to the garage they get in and poke around the bird food bags. Sometimes we hear them scurrying around in there, clap our hands, and watch them dash out the door. Humans forget about the food chain because we are on top of it. But the squirrels and ground squirrels are why the owls and foxes hang around. They’re lunch.
At the end of our close-up owl encounter Lonny and I watched that barred owl spread its wings and drop down from its branch, scuffle on the ground, then fly away with a small animal hanging from its talons. Ground squirrel I’m thinking. We couldn’t tell. And the fox sniffing around the shack? Looking for the same thing I’m betting.
There’s more. Earlier in the summer my wife and I watched for twenty minutes as a young white tail deer kept a mother racoon from her three kits. The mother was near the compost pile, the three kits halfway up trunk of a big oak, crying, and the deer in between, threatening the coon with a head butt every time she neared the tree. The deer finally got bored and left, the coons were reunited, and all of them lived happily ever after as far as we know.
It probably helps that I am retired and spend a large amount of time in a shack with a glass wall facing a wooded ravine on the edge of town. Or that my wife’s favorite chair faces the back yard and she has a clear view of everything that goes on there. But we’re not the only ones.
Our friends in Seattle live in house in a rather dense residential block and keep chickens, six laying hens, in their backyard. One evening they heard the hens raising a ruckus in the yard (free range you know) and when they went out to investigate the next-door neighbor reported seeing a coyote with one of their hens in its mouth loping through their yard. Yet only four hens remained. They shut those four up in the coop, looked high and low for the missing old girl (a favorite they explained) and, fearing the worst, turned in for the night.
About an hour later the hens were at it again. This time they came out armed with a flashlight and when they shined it around the perimeter of the yard saw a coyote standing on their neighbor’s deck and the missing old hen hiding underneath it. They ran off the coyote and rescued the hen. Middle of a big city for god’s sake.
Animals are living lives all around us, radically different lives to be sure, but not unconnected to ours. Watch for them, tune in to their vibe, and see which one you relate to most. I am still undecided, but I've narrowed it down to a Jersey dairy bull, a barred owl, a fox, heck maybe even a ground squirrel. I'll keep looking. You do the same.