For most of my life, the owl has been more storybook character than reality of the natural world. For instance, he has served as sidekick (straight man?) to the Pussycat, the hectoring scold to Merlin, and of course, the feathered epitome of reason to Winnie’s one-track Pooh.
But a bird in a tree on a plot of land near me? Not hardly. The whole pantheon of owls remained unchecked in my trusty Roger Tory Peterson Field Guild to the Birds. Unlike the pedestrian robin, red-winged blackbird, or chickadee, the owl (pick a breed, any breed) remained as holy (and about as common) as the grail.
Circumstances, you see. The wetlands behind our house have become wetter lands thanks to another storybook figure making his debut (in droves), the beaver. Back in the days of Ben Franklin, beavers were hunted ruthlessly for their fur. Fashionable Ben started a sensation in Europe when he showed up in Paris wearing his beaver cap. Everyone (pardon me: tout le monde) had to have one. And New World Trappers rejoiced.
Since then, the idea of donning dead animals on your head has fallen out of favor. Thanks to fickle fashion, beavers saw trappers’ joy and raised it. That and a lot of lodges.
As beavers return to Massachusetts in droves, colonial-era maps in their hands and Canon cameras around their necks, they are flooding the Commonwealth until it looks like a scene out of Waterworld. This may be bad for your once-dry lawn, but it’s a big plus for the local ecosystem and Kevin Costner’s royalty checks.
Exhibit A of this eco-cause and effect? The owl. The fact that owls have moved into the trees (OK, what trees remain) in the wetter lands behind us is a sign of new and eclectic forms of nature in the neighborhood. Who needs a diorama when you have wetter-lands to gawk at? Last year, for the first time, I began hearing “hoo” and other relative pronouns outside my window, early and often.
Did you know that you can identify owls with your eyes closed, simply by counting hoo’s? This owl gave 3 to 8 hoo’s as a rule, marking him as the Great Horned Owl — a big mother, as my dad would say. Not only Roger, but Tory and Peterson claim he reaches 18 to 25 inches in height — this when he’s not even angry.
In truth, I enjoy the early-morning hoo-fests my new feathered friends put on. I find it dolefully romantic, which would crack the owls up, I’m sure. Or maybe it would crack their prey up, who see more doleful and less romantic in these beak-and-talon killers.
Yesterday brought a real treat. It was a windy day. Supper hour. Some broad called Daylight was out back. And on the limb of an Eastern White Pine tree — the one closest to our kitchen window — sat a Great Horned Owl, her (his?) great brown back to us. Of course, backs are relative things with owls. They twist their heads like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. “I’m Somebody. Hoo are you? Are you Somebody, too?”
This owl, with her catlike “ears” blowing in the wind, was patiently waiting for the dinner bell. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for some chipmunk, squirrel, rabbit, garter snake, or songbird. The head twisted forward, right, all the way back (looking at me?), and forward again like some surveillance camera.
I called my wife to the window. “Look! Can I adopt her?” I asked. “Give her a name like Hedwig?”
“Something that size adopts you,” she replied. “She’s huge!”
Eating well, I take it. Likes her new playpen, thanks to the beavers. And hoo knew that owls made cameos in the daylight? I always thought they were nocturnal critters, blind as Athena in her old age when the sun came out.
Apparently and not, my friends. My new owner has laid down the law. She now rules this parcel of soaking land behind us day and night.
And me? I feel like I’m in good hands. Wings, I mean. If I don’t see another chipmunk or mouse skittering about, I’ll consider it no loss. The Reign of Rodents in this area has latest long enough!