I have the keys to their enclosures. The raptors. I open them, one at a time, and do service for owls and hawks and eagles and falcons. I rake and clean and water while they, wild talon shod birds, study my every move. As I work, I can’t help but ask: how do you talk to Owls?
I am on our morning lookout with Rick and a cup of coffee. The distant hills, lit by a dawn sun in spring formation, angles creamy light into blossoming maple reds and yellow birch and pale green poplar. On the slope below, we see a fox staring up at us, immobile while we stare down. I think – as I always think when an animal stares at me – that it is trying to communicate and I want to know what it is saying. Why does it stand there? Why does it make sure we have seen it?
The dogs are not yet aware of it and then they are, and all bodies careen into action. Cooper’s hundred pounds of muscle like a horse pounding. Mollie with her bad hips trailing behind. And the fox long gone into the forest shelter. They disappear over the crest, soundlessly.
Rick and I mosey that way, calling and whistling, knowing nothing will turn the dogs until they are out of breath and discouraged. But at the crest where we almost never go is a gift: a field of fiddleheads ready to be picked. The fox had been standing in that spot, looking up at us, as if saying: you’ve been looking for fiddleheads for several weeks now and all along they’ve been here, on this hill, under your nose, under your every morning coffee at the lookout.
Was the fox actually thinking that? Does any animal actually communicate to us the way people of the earth, people who lived with the earth, believed? That there were messages in their eyes, in their presence? I like thinking that something helped me find the fiddleheads. Circumstances big enough to include the possibility of help from the Universe, help from my earth companions, the animals. So I did thank the fox for her help.
I went up to VINS in a good mood, excited to be with the birds, but also disappointed. After I volunteered to clean the exhibition cages, I heard about an eagle release scheduled for that same morning. VINS had rehabilitated four eagles in ten years, so eagle release was not going to be a daily occurrence. I guessed that the regular volunteer had found out about it and I, a gullible and willing and less informed sub, took their slot. I was – clearly – way down on the totem pole of volunteer hierarchy.
This Baldy had been in care for over three months recovering from poisoning. She had been tagged in Quebec, so they knew she was a pre-adult, four years old. Snowmobilers had found her face down in her own vomit and somehow they figured out that she wasn’t dead. Staff at VINS were sure she would die as she vomited all the next day. Her recovery was cause for celebration.
I heard later that day, after I had finished cleaning and was eating my lunch, that she ran out of her travelling cage to fly into a tree where she stared at them for twenty minutes. Some people report that she seemed upset with them. Others that she might have been grateful. I think she was just a little gobsmacked at her luck – that all her worry and anxiety of the past weeks, scared that her life was going to be forever in a cage, confined to be alone. I can only imagine that three months might seem interminable.
Gobsmacked. All her fears ungrounded. All her worries proved wrong. Maybe she wasn’t quite sure what to do next. And then a staff member walked up to her perch and shooshed at her. And off she flew, spiraling into an updraft, capable on a good day of climbing higher than any bird can go. And miraculously… or not… another eagle showed up. I have seen three wild eagles in my life. They’re not like pigeons in a park or crows in the woods. They don’t hang out everywhere. And yet, on this day, another eagle arrives to greet Baldy on her first day in the wilds. As if waiting. As if knowing that this was happening on that day.
I did have my own little moment in this story. My own memory of this lucky girl. A couple of hours into the work, earlier than usual, I had a thought. A little pull in my stomach, a little urging in my gut. It called me back to the staff rooms, to my warm coffee and snack. To a pee break. Usually I try to clean more than half the cages before a break so that the second half of my day is easier. I talked myself into staying and getting further ahead; then I thought of my warm coffee; and then thought that it was too soon to break. And then I felt the compulsion again. Not for a pee or coffee or food, but just a little noise rumbling and saying “time to go in”. My thinking continued in this vein for several seconds, bouncing in that terrible way we have of arguing with ourselves, until I realized that I had no idea why I feel compelled to take a break, but that I had to find out.
As I arrived, the wildlife director was coming out the door to catch Baldy in her enclosure. Two staffers were bringing a huge travelling cage behind. And they invited me to join them.
Her enclosure was L shaped and bigger than the generous exhibition cages. It was easily over two hundred square feet, and high enough for her to fly. Small by her standards, no doubt, but large enough to make catching her a challenge.
We were four people in the cage, two with large butterfly-like nets, and she careened between us screaming and swinging her enormous wings like weapons. Once on the ground, she ran like a canon shot, barreling past the nets, forcing her way through them, charging into spaces and gaps, struggling, fighting, screaming. She was angry and ferocious. She was tenacious and determined. She was majestic. Powerful. Awesome. I don’t use that word often…. But here: yes here: she was awesome.