How To Talk With Owls #7

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?

 

 

Fight

 

This word, fight, is one step away from flight, yet they’re quite different one from the other. And yes, the title is not a typo.

Rick and I are working together on a Saturday morning in Spring. The weather is summer gorgeous, and it’s probably the first time I’m anticipating the scrapping work without being wet and cold. So yeah, that’s got us in a good mood. We’re psyched, you could say.

Step into the staff area and the mood changes quickly. On the gurney is a towel wrapped bird being held fast between two people and a third is working on a claw. It is so still I believe it’s dead until a single claw opens and closes.

Shit! I had before noticed that theses raptors are armed, but in that moment I have a full appreciation of the possibilities of the talons. The claw opens wide, and the otherwise curved and compacted talons spread like knives in a Kung Foo Movie. Long, curved and wickedly sharp, I have a visceral reaction to this simple movement.

It is a Great Horned owl on the table, one who has lived in the wild around the VINS centre, feasting on birds and occasionally crashing into enclosures and eating VIN occupants. There’s a great sadness in the place because a beloved education bird, Crowy, has been killed by this beast. It broke through the winter brittle plastic roofing by falling through it, and then devoured the “smartest bird I’ve ever known” as one of the staffers admits. Crows are smart, but this royal owl, the most dreaded of all, who eats most of the other owls as well as many large hawks and anything else it can catch and consume, has no trouble imprisoning Crowy the minute it has gained access to the cage. And apparently, it has a princess attitude towards its food and eats only the head.

The scrapping work is going really well. Everybody is in fine form despite warnings that they’re in egg laying moods, which can be worse than usual as they feel more territorial. But we’ve found no eggs and no birds seem out of sorts until our last cage, the bald eagle enclosure. It’s the size of a large living room, maybe bigger, so when two of us step in, we’re not really encroaching on personal space; but the female, who I wrote about the last time, the one who is always in a nasty mood, screaming and complaining, is more agitated than usual. Not only is she vociferous, but she’s actively charging. Once, while I’m on the ground picking up bits of bone, she comes toward me running, and from that low angle, she looks bigger than I am. I also notice that the faster she runs the less wobbly her gait. As described in the previous blog, she’s got a bit of a humpty dumpty gait. What seemed funny before now feels a little more intimidating.

Somehow, the two eagles end up in the same corner and she pounces on him andf he screams. No wonder: she’s got him hooked in her talons. His wings are spread and he’s flapping to get away and she’s hammering at his head with her hooked beak and he’s pecking back, screaming. And despite his obvious willingness to accommodate any of her wishes, she doesn’t let go. My animal instinct rises up in me and I stand and take a few steps toward them yelling “enough!”

Ok – if she had decided to attack me I had a bucket in my hand for protection, so I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have been an easy fight. The shock of my aggression stops them dead and she comes toward me, wings outstretch. She stops, hissing, and when I don’t move back, she bounces away, humpty dumpty style.

Later, she comes at me, again seemingly trying to get me out. I stand up and tell her to get back to the other end. She seems a little perplexed, but she goes down to the other end. I’m getting good at this. I don’t know where my great white man protector is – nearby, no doubt ready to help me if I need it…?… and that’s when I say – you know, I think we’re done. Whatever we haven’t done, we’ll leave cause she clearly wants us out of here. I head out with the hose, he with the pail behind me. He looks back and she’s running for the door. He closes it quickly against her arrival and she’s standing there, at the other side, as if making sure we don’t come in again.

We go to the front of the cages and pause in front of the Baldy cage to see how they’re doing. She has stopped attacking the door and is having a bath. She’s practically singing she is having such a great time bobbing and ruffling herself in the fresh water.

All along, is this is what she wanted? Some private time in a bath?

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How To Talk With Owls #6

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?

 

Eagle Release

 

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.

 

 

How do You Talk With Owls #5

 

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?

#5 Flustered

We’re supposed to check the birds, make sure they seem okay. I’m not a specialist, but I can usually count to one or two or three birds. And all of them seem to have a favorite hang out. Snow is always on the ground diametrically opposite from the door through which I enter. Great Grey has a square post where he stares down on me, and a corner he flies to, making silent treks from one to the other when he’s a little disturbed. One of the Peregrines is always on the floor and will jump up to the rock to be fed, right next to the front where people can watch. A natural performer. And the screech owls are practically like live gargoyles as they occupy fixed location in nap mode.

But one day, I can’t find the second screech.  I climb on the stool to be able to search into higher places, nooks and crannies, the little nesting box, craning my neck to get at different angles. The enclosure isn’t very big and I circle around without success, re-visiting the same places to look again.

As I search for it, I find it hard to believe that it is in the cage with me. It has entirely disappeared. Yes, I am panicked a little. Well, maybe not quite that serious: but I’m confounded and disturbed. I actually consider calling for help on the walkie-talkie I don’t know how to use.

Once, when all the birds were receiving their semi-annual check ups, I had the privilege of seeing one of the screech owls held in the palm of someone’s hand. When it’s perched on a limb, it’s the size of a kitten. Not exactly large, but it’s a substantially round puffy cutie. However, in hand, its feathers gathered, it shrinks to the size of a small rat or a bat. It is almost non-existent it is so small.

I know in the wild I could probably never see a screech, not even with a lot of determination, but I pride myself on having some observational skills. I once counted nine hawks in nine separate instances while driving all day along a boring highway. Which isn’t entirely interesting in itself except that a friend of mine, who that same day travelled the same stretch of highway, also counted nine hawks. I thought cool! My hunter gatherer skills are not entirely dead. Also, I take it as a good sign when I see a bird of prey in the wild  – like in Homer’s literature, the eagle descending is a thick omen. They – those seer guys who were professional interpreters –  used to be able to give pretty specific instructions about the meaning of the omen.  I know that nine has magical abilities:  have you ever noticed that every integer of every multiple of nine adds up to nine? That’s math magic.

So: what does it mean that there were nine hawks? I have no idea. I want to call on Homer’s dude, but there aren’t many of those prophet types around. I think:  Screech owl absence isn’t an omen; it’s an oversight. It’s an anomaly. It’s a test.

 

I decide I will not call for back-up. I can handle this. And reason convinces me that it has to be in the cage.  I stand in the middle of the enclosure for a few seconds to gather my thoughts. A friend of mine calls on St Christopher when she loses something and it often works. I don’t do that, but the effect of pausing calms me.

And then I start looking again, this time not for the owl, but for the places I haven’t looked. It’s not exactly as if it comes out of hiding, but I suddenly see where it could be. And when I look, there it is: in a place that I could not have imagined possible. Hiding and completely camouflaged in a crack between its favorite post and the enclosure frame, a slit that would barely allow my fingers to reach in. It is squished with its wings spread wide, like it is embracing the post. Its little head is hidden in the flurry of feathers. I wonder if it is trapped. I worry that maybe it has fallen down into a trap.

I say a few soft words to it and it turns to look at me. Just a little movement and I back away. When I check on it again, it’s back up on its post. Sound asleep. Unflustered.

Video Poem created with Peter Bloch

Here’s a link to footage from Peter Bloch’s flying camera with my recorded poem playing alongside it. Beautiful imagery. Evocative video.

Sacred Attention on the Land

In some cultures, this is called Vision Quest and was done at the lip of a cliff (ie: Lakota)

In others, it is an initiation rite spent in the womb of the earth in darkness (ie: Celtic)

Solo time in the wilderness sates a longing to be connected to the Universe. There is no need to go far or to spend a great deal of money:  climb into our backyard woods, pay attention to details, listening, opening, breathing. Open to sky vision, cloud divination, rock talk, bird soliloquy. Perspective of the very small and the very large.

Next event: August 5 – 10 2017  Please contact me if this amazing experience calls to you for its ability to propel your vision into the future and to expand the horizons of who you know yourself to be.

Click here for more details

How Do You Talk With Owls – #4

 

VINS Volunteer

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?

4 – Widget and Love

There’s a barn owl named Widget in his indoor cage playing with his toy, a child’s stuffed owl. They just gave it to him because he was getting all lovey dovey with his handler’s arms. So he’s got the stuffy by the neck with his beak, and he’s walking on her. It looks kind of aggressive, but I imagine love making can look that way when you stand back from it and see it with a kind of objective ignorance. He seems pretty attentive to her in any case. He’s one of the many birds who imprinted on humans during delicate bonding age, and though he’s physically fine, he wouldn’t survive outside. He’s one of the educational birds, the ones I don’t handle…. Not yet anyway.

It just so happens that he’s received his love mate the day I am joined by my own true love. It’s Thanksgiving weekend and someone has bailed for Friday scrapping and I’m on call duty. R. is like a kid on the way to the fair, where cotton candy and roller coasters await. He’s practically bouncing in the morning as we make coffee. Earlier in the week, he can’t stop telling everyone about his excitement at going to help clean cages. It’s pretty adorable to watch. His giddiness. We step into the staff room to get prepared and there’s widget, having a good time with his new love.

  1. and I share a look. You know, the kind that says, yeah baby, isn’t that fun and don’t we know all about it. Giggling maybe.

So out we go to the enclosures and the wild birds where I am scrapping and R. just stares at the birds. Wonderment. Wonderment. And more wonderment. As I clean. I get tons of pleasure just watching him appreciate the birds. He’s dancing inside. Vibrating. Weepy even. Awed. He’s sucking in all that amazing bird energy and yet it’s raining and cold and pretty soon we’re tired and hungry and we go back inside for a break. And Widget’s on the floor of his cage looking sad. Making funny squeaking noises under his breath. He’s not the same bird he had been an hour earlier and he’s alone in the cage.

He’d dropped his love into his water bowl and now it is in the laundry. I know that feeling. It’s not separation anxiety, it’s just that the world isn’t coloured the same way when my love is away. It’s that simple. And I get it: Widget hadn’t finished with his loving.

How Do You Talk With Owls – 3

VINS Volunteer

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?

3- Trances

One morning the dog runs ahead of us, head in the air. He’s a big mastiff boxer mix, so I’m unprepared for his birding abilities. There’s an owl in the tree above our heads as we catch up to him. He’s got his neck craned staring at it the way my pointer used to, though his forward leg isn’t up and I’m pretty sure he’ll get bored before long and move on. Meanwhile, R. and I are staring up and enjoying how the owl stares back. He really isn’t staring at us. He checks us out, then looks in other directions, swiveling his head like a well oiled ball bearing. Or a yogi master. Anyway, he’s beautiful. And wild. And then he moves suddenly, without warning, he is in the air and soars away on wide wings. Slight angles through the trees ahead of us, drops under around through and beyond. Gone.

He’s probably the one we hear from the bedroom window at night, when we wake to pee, lying in bed listening afterward not wanting to sleep. Wanting to soar out into the night, and sit, hooting with him. There’s something about the life of a wild animal that feels so right when they’re out there doing life, doing what they’re supposed to do. Although the VINS birds can’t be released for legitimate reasons, they’re caged and that changes them. I don’t feel sad about it the way animals in a zoo or circus depress me, but I do feel that their lives have been compromised. This compromise actually makes them special, like ambassadors.

So I’m sweeping the floor in the staff area. The place they chop rabbits and chickens and mice to prepare food for the birds. Chasing feathers around thinking my expertise does not include such a momentous task. The feathers flip into the air, resettle in whirlwinds, chase the broom and run away from it, laugh at my attempts to gather them. I’m laughing at myself as I sweep. Herculean tasks, or the ones that are never meant to be completed, like Sisyphus.

The back door opens and a handler comes in saying “bird”. It’s my signal to get out of the way. Just in case, cause you never know when big spread wings are going to slap your face off. I step out of the hall into a dead end alley that leads to a few other cages. The handler smiles and nods down the alley and says, that’s where I’m going. So I move again.

The barred owl eyes me as they pass, leaning out of his perch on her arm to keep eye contact as they move. He peers over her shoulder straight into my gaze as they head down the alley. As she puts him on the scale to be weighed, he moves sidewise to look over her shoulder to stare at me. She shifts sidewise to the left, he shifts to the right, keeping his eyes on mine. She moves to the right, he shifts left. Then, when the weighing dance is done, she gets him back on her arm, and he doesn’t break the contact. The broom is settled under my armpit and I’m leaning into the wall not moving. Me and the bird, we’re talking. Or at least, something is happening. Not until they go past me again and out the door do we stop this momentous communication.

This is an experience that is rare even among humans. I mean, when was the last time you spent more than five minutes gazing into someone’s eyes?

I don’t know why, but this bird has tranced me. Neither of us are blinking in all that time and my mind is full of a singular wonderful image. I’m in silhouette forest, tree branches appearing in view and disappearing as I pass them. I’m rising and falling in and out of the silhouette branches, contours of trails that are made from tree tops, moon glow spaces and sky openings.

I don’t know whether I’m getting these images from the bird, who remembers, or I’m sending them to the bird who forgets, but I’m there. I’m with him. And he’s with me and we’re hunting.