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?
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.