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?
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.