I’m no birder, and before this fall I had never seen an owl in person. That changed around November when a housecat-sized brown and white flecked bird with a yellow beak and talons began using the sumac trees at the border of our yard to rest. At first when we all ran out to see her she swiveled her head left, right and around. Her big black eyes seemed wary, and she moved her perch slightly away from us. The more she came by the more she seemed to know us, though. She stared at us, her wide eyes narrowing with sleep even as I pointed my telephoto lens at her or as the girls went sledding down a hill, whooping and yelling right in front of her tree.
One crisp, cold and blindingly sunny Saturday we took a family walk with the dog, the wind lashing small patches of exposed skin just as the sun warmed them. Weeks of mud puddles from the freakishly warm start to winter had finally frozen over. In the distance we could see the low purple silhouette of the mountains and withered farm fields bisected by walking paths. We were in the woods off to the side. Just as we exited the trees we saw the soundless beat of owl wings. The bird settled on a branch and looked down at us from her perch.
By now we knew that she was a barred owl. We admired the horizontal and vertical brown and white bars all over her body but couldn’t distinguish her intricate design- if she was a female, that is- from any other barred owl’s pattern. Against the backdrop of the trees she seemed large, but it was impossible to measure exactly how tall, how wide. There was no way for us to know if her quiet regard of us was a trait of barred owls, suspicion or friendship. We walked, and as we finally left the farm there was an owl- the owl?- in a different stand of trees. She stared at us with no visible fear, and perhaps with recognition. Had she followed us? Maybe it was another owl. But in the eight years that we lived here, where had all these owls- or this owl- been?
I read what little I could find on the internet about barred owls, but nothing helped me know our owl any better. The mystery carried me through seven days in a row of work, right up to another family walk with the dog. This time the frozen mud was covered with six inches of dry, powdery snow topped with a thin shell of ice. We didn’t see our owl friend, or friends, and I was disappointed.
But then, on the way home as we passed a stretch of woods not far from a major road we heard a different bird: the resonant call of an invisible great horned owl. And amazingly the call was followed by a response, a minor third deeper from a second owl. I held my breath as it repeated, call response, call response, six syllables, five syllables, six syllables, five syllables. Hoo-hooo Hoo-hoo Hoo-Hoooo. Hoo-hooo Hoo-Hoo Hoooo. The duet arced into a crescendo and decrescendo until I was barely able to distinguish it from the not-so-far-off chugging of an engine brake and the low moan of an approaching siren.
I couldn’t stop thinking of the great horned owls’ chorus and it transported me to other call and responses from my past like my dad sing-saying the Gayatri Mantra one line at a time, waiting until I repeated his words to go on to the next.
Dad: Om bhur bhuvha sv-ha
Me (accompanied by adolescent eye-rolling and angst): Om boo-hoo ça va…
Dad: Tat savitur varenyam
Me: Tut savita uranium…
But with the owls’ calls as guidance, the power of my late father chanting that mantra (and my adolescent rebellion) moved me nearly to tears. From there I thought of my favorite part of Catholic mass:
Peace be with you,
And also with you.
And then it was an easy link to the modal chants that I studied with my flute teacher- as haunting and pure as the owl pair’s own music.
Superb owls, indeed.
(Today is, of course, the super bowl. So, I put on my Bills sweatshirt- oh, they’re not in it? Well, I don’t really care about the football anyway. For me it is about the food, a day to perfect my veggie chili, and slather breaded cauliflower in Western New York style sauces: Frank’s Red Hot and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. What do superb owls have to do with the super bowl? Do you see it? Click the link here or above to read more.)