Birds

Finding Owls and Community

great horned owl on a chimney

She looks unamused, here. What does she think of us, as she watches us from her cozy chimney perch?

I walk my dogs frequently in the evenings down a wooded trail near our suburban home. I’d see other walkers, with and without dogs, but I rarely said more than a greeting. If they had a dog, there is a possibility that my dogs will be impolite, and I don’t want the risk that the other walker’s dog would lunge at mine. If they didn’t have a dog, then there was really no focal point for discussion. I don’t know my neighbors, and I’m okay with that. We’re all busy; who has time to talk these days? Over the last year, though, things have changed.

female great horned owl

Did you hear something? I love that ability to look 180 degrees behind her. Awesome. Unless you’re a naughty kid who can never get out of mom’s sight.

Last fall, I noticed an owl in the trees. At first, I only heard it, so I began to search the trees to see it. I’d see one in the trees and hear one a block away. I knew there was a pair of owls, but they never roosted together. Once, there was no owl in sight, and disappointed, I imagined what the owl cry would sound like. Within seconds, I heard an answering cry in the trees behind me. It called several times, so I knew that it was real, not my imagination. I had a shiver down my spine; had the owl heard my mental call?

great horned owl

He looks a little cross here, the way he has his “horn” tufts to the side and back.

The owls quickly became the highlight of my walk. Often, I’d be walking briskly with my dog, and suddenly, I’d remember the owls and glance to the trees to see the owl immediately to my side. It’s as if I knew the owl was there, without consciously thinking about it. I’m not a birdwatcher; a bird has to be pretty large to get my attention. Our area is raptor-rich, though, and we’re on the migration route for some large birds, though, so I have large birds that I can enjoy, year-round. I’d never seen an owl until two or three years ago, though, so owls are still quite novel and mysterious to me.

female great horned owl

Mom sits in the dark and cool trees, squinting at us. She’s keeping an eye on the family and the trail.

This spring, I noticed other walkers admiring the owls, too. Sometimes we’d recognize each other and stop to point out the owl to approaching walkers so that we could all enjoy the pair as they waited for dusk. And then a few weeks ago, one of the older ladies passed me, grinning. She spoke little English (perhaps fluent Italian?), but she pointed and said “owl.” I was excited as she pointed out to me the pair’s owlet! He was roosting just outside the nest above our trail.

great horned owlet

What a little fuzz-ball!

I was eager to walk each evening and looked for the family. The baby owl became the highlight of the evening for all of us as we excitedly pointed out the youngster to all the others. The owlet was easy to find because of the excited group of walkers pointing to the trees. If I was the first to approach at any given time, I pointed him out to any approaching walkers. Some said they discovered the owls when they found the owl pellets on the sidewalk, and I thought they were quite clever! No, he wasn’t a science teacher; he was the son of a science teacher. I wasn’t surprised.

great horned owl

Don’t look too close at the daddy owl’s talons, which are holding dinner. I didn’t post the more graphic dinner shots. You’re welcome.

One day, a young man rode up on his bicycle, and we spoke for a few minutes as I explained that I was looking for the owls. He was very friendly and talked for a while before going on his way. I was stumped that evening because the owlet was nowhere to be seen. For a week, I didn’t see him. I hoped that I had just come too early or he’d been in the nest. I met a man who wanted to show his grandson the nearby fox den. He confided that no one had seen the baby for a week, and they feared that he’d toppled off the tree and been eaten by the fox. I was devastated and unbelievably sad at the thought. No mother likes to think of another mom – of any species – losing her young.

male great horned owl

He looks a bit cross here. I can only tell which is male and female when I see them together. The female is the larger bird.

A few days later, I took my dog for a sad walk, missing the owlet. But there he was! The baby was out, alive and well. He’d gained a few feathers and had flown to a neighboring tree and even gained a few feet in altitude. He hasn’t fully fledged, but he’s growing up. We were all so excited! I made new friends, and it was almost like a party as walkers gathered at the Cottonwood trees to see that the owlet was alive and well. There was no talk of our jobs, our beliefs, or politics; we were joined simply by our fondness for the wild owls.

great horned owlet

You can clearly see he still has fuzzy down on his chest. He has more mature feathers on his wings.

I realized that I not only found owls, I also found a sense of community. Thank you, owl family for trusting us enough to build your nest over the walking trail. Thank you for sharing your pride and joy with us! And cheers to the little spunk-meister, who will grow to be a big strong owl over the next few months. He’ll eventually leave, find a nest-mate, and establish his own hunting territory. But for now, a community has come together of humans, dogs, and owls so that we can more clearly see our connections within the web of life.  Thank you, Earth, for sharing your splendor with us.

great horned owlet

He’s older with a few flight feathers now.

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