Owls – What a Hoot!

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A barred owl surveys his winter landscape.

Photo by Joan Heffernan

A barred owl surveys his winter landscape.

Over the past few weeks, when I have been traipsing around in the dark, I have heard great horned owls calling. This is the time of year that they are starting to court and mate, and soon they will get the jump on spring by laying eggs in the dead of winter. It’s wonderfully optimistic of them to start things up, and, Lord knows, we need some good news these days. We are lucky enough to have owls living in our midst, but they are more often heard rather than seen. The great horned, barred and screech owls all make their voices known during these cold months. As everyone knows, owls are nocturnal and hunt rodents, but will prey on other owls if the opportunity presents itself, adding to their overall mystique.

They have lots of really interesting adaptations that we have all seen in cartoons and Harry Potter movies including the ability to turn their head around and look behind them, specialized feathers to reduce sound, asymmetrical ears, and multiple eye lids. As if that doesn’t make them appealing enough, they swallow their food whole, something my mother told me never to do, and regurgitate the bones and fur in the form of owl pellets. You can learn a lot about their fine dining if you come across a pellet or two in your travels.

Owls nest in cavities of trees or they will recycle an old hawk or crow’s nest to avoid all that stick collecting rigmarole. The larger owls lay up to a dozen or so eggs over several weeks and usually incubate them for 30 days. A group of owls is known as a parliament, but who the heck ever sees a group of owls?

Listening to these owls converse reminded me of another time when I encountered an owl on a winter day. I was walking around the trails at Sunrise Park and dusk was approaching. For some reason, I felt eyes on me and looked up and there was a barred owl above me on a branch, doing what owls do best: staring. What makes us feel those eyes upon us I may never know. It’s a feeling that stays with you, and I remembered the time when I felt eyes on me when I was in fourth grade madly penning notes to my friend on the other side of the class room. I looked up from my deviant task and made eye contact with the teacher, who was not pleased. I resorted to an old trick of looking down at my book, feigning nonchalance, which sometimes had worked in the past. Not this time, and I remember trudging down to the principal’s office, slumped. In the confines of those four walls, I used up a whole box of Kleenex while I wrote I will not pass notes in school thousands of times on some lined paper. And, for a while I didn’t.

But old habits die hard and I have resumed writing and passing notes as of late. It’s just too tempting to sit in a meeting or in church or on a flight when my best thinking occurs, and I need to strike while the iron is hot or those thoughts are gone. Not to mention, there is something about receiving a little slip of paper with some thoughts scrawled out on it, usually rolled up scroll fashion and delivered via several innocent bystanders. You just know the message is going to be good. No wonder the teacher was staring, and if we had been in Hogwarts instead of Spaulding School, no doubt some owl would have been staring, too.

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