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?
2- Barred Owl
It’s my first day, my training day. Karen and Denis are going to show me around the scrapping duties, so I’m listening to the list of things I need to bring with me. Pencil. Paper. Key. Walky-talky. I’m listening and remembering and trying not to pay attention to all the other things happening around me, the staff doing their work, and the educational birds inside making screeching and clicking noises. I’m paying attention to my instructors when I hear That sound.
I first hear it two months previously, when I’m living in the woods for the month of August. For the entire month, it’s just me and a tent in a field near a stream. I’m there because I quit my big city job running a small business. I’m there because I want to be, just be. On one of the first nights, I’m up the hill from my tent having decided to sit outside all day and night. I’ve found a spot I like, a rock that is comfortable to sit upon, with a slight view out to the horizon, and as dusk gets in, I settle into a little knoll, or maybe it’s a little like a bowl, and lie facing the sky as the stars start to show up through the forest canopy. And just as the forest dark closes me in, and I can’t see my hand in front of my face, That Sound starts.
It is a weird airy whistling sound which I have never before heard. It scares me because I don’t know what it is and it’s not far enough away. It’s just there, down the hill towards my tent, between me and my false sense of safety. I turn on the flashlight and it shines three feet ahead of me, so whatever it is that is going to attack, I’ll see it just before it gets my jugular. I decide there’s nothing I can do except stop my imagination from getting ahead of my reality. I sit up and sing to the night, to myself, and to the creature behind the screaming.
It keeps up it’s eerie whistling for hours, long after I decide it isn’t going to attack.
I have a lifetime of being in the woods, so it surprises me, this new sound. My grandparents were birders and I have always been fascinated by the varieties of songbirds, the movements of a gull on the wind, the dive of a pelican, and the exaggerated obsessiveness of the birding community. Like musicians, who speak a language that seems to exclude some of us, the thrill of a guitar under experienced fingers and the magical numerology of eighths and fifths in a scale progression, birders have a sophisticated vocabulary. But I never got into the identifications of parts or behaviours or even varieties with any expertise. I can point to a trout lily in the spring and say “eat that – it is ripe and sweet and tastes unlike anything else you’ve ever tasted”. And I can look up high in the sky and tell the difference between a turkey vulture and a falcon and a hawk. But mostly I just like to the be in the woods hanging out with the flora and the fauna calling it all Friend. But every night, just beyond the forest line and from the same place every evening, that other, whistling sound I cannot identify. And it kind of bugs me that I don’t know what it is. I don’t even know how to find out what it is.
And then I’m listening to Karen and taking the keys and following her outside and all the time, That Sound is happening: a barred owl is gripping a staff member’s arm, calmly enough, head forward, its hooked beak opening and closing. It’s a baby owl’s begging noise, the staff guy says. To ask for food. This one is a juvenile and should have stopped it by now, but it had an accident, so it’s a little retarded.
I thank him, continue on my way. I’m so glad to know what That Sound is, that I’m not even embarrassed that it once terrified me. I listen closely again and I can hear it: like a baby’s whimpery cry. Feed me. Feed me. Whahhhhh. I’m hungry.