as a 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?
1- The Great Grey
I’ve had my training session and I’m cleaning the enclosures alone. I don’t want to say that I’m anxious about the birds’ likelihood to attack, but I keep my eye on them. They’re wild after all. These are birds whose release is impossible because they’re physically injured, so they flap aimlessly in large pens where they will live out their lives, teaching humans about who they are.
They study me as I move, following each action as if I’m prey. No: it would be hyperbolic to say that I am food, but I’m glad I’m not a mouse under those stares. They pierce and enter. Most people don’t look at me that way. Straight into me, fearlessly. Maybe, sometimes, my cat does. Straight on, not wanting anything, not needing anything. Just peering straight into my eyes and seeing me in an indifference that is profound. I want to understand and describe the feeling of their gaze, but for now I just move from enclosure to enclosure, awed by each of the birds.
The Great Grey Owl is massive and sits up on a pole inspecting me as I enter with pail and rake. I lay these down and stand, saying hi. Let GGOW get used to me, the new person. I smile – though that means nothing to him. I just smile. Tall bird, round face and ping pong sized eyes, dark brown, almost black. Shining down at me. Impassioned and deliberate stare.
I am in heaven. I feel solid in that stare and irrelevant. And I feel incredibly honoured to be there.
I begin to move around the cage, working. When I move, I tell the bird I’m moving. I bend to pick up debris and the bird moves. Flies to a corner, settles, then flies back. Uncertain about how it will respond to me, and because there’s a bicycle helmet outside the door as it did once pounce onto someone’s head, I keep looking up, keep checking it’s location. Then bend to pick up debris.
I look again. It’s on the pole. It moves and it’s in the corner. Its wings unfold to impossible length. I wonder, where does it hide all that bone and feather when it’s sitting? Wing span that looks like it might wrap me like my lover. Wing span that is, technically speaking, up to sixty inches long (that’s five feet long. That’s almost my height!) And yet, here’s a bird that’s all air. It weighs two or three pounds.
I bend to pick up debris. I actually have work to do and can’t stand around awed by this amazing flight, this volume of bird just above my head, unfolding like a great Chinese fan. Besides, maybe it wants me out of its space. Do the job and get out. Pick up feathers from last night’s meal. Bits of bone. A sternum maybe from a chicken. A regurgitated bundle of stick-feather-bone which is a debris object I’ll see often which must have a name, like a scientific name that I could look up because I could learn some of the lexicon of my task. I peel it apart, fascinated by the way it is woven. It almost looks like a small animal, yet it peels apart in lengths, like strands of string cheese.
I dump the pellet and look up for the owl. It’s gone from the corner. Startled, I look up the pole. It’s there. I did not see it move. I didn’t hear it move. I didn’t feel it move. It is right on top of me staring down. If I were a mouse, I’d be dead.