Saturday, April 18, 2009

The screech owl

We had a new resident in our neighborhood late winter and early spring. A male screech owl moved into a hole in a gnarly maple at the corner of Pearson and Waneta. Nights it was out hunting, I suppose. But days it spent perched, still as a statue, on its threshold – sometimes its eyes were open, sometimes closed.

The owl’s gray mimicked the tree bark so closely I doubt most people would have noticed unless someone else called their attention to it. Ken, whose house sits directly across Pearson from the tree, and Peter, owner of the BB across Waneta, pointed the owl out to me one day when I was walking our dog, Rita.

Ken is what Jane Jacobs, the ethnographer of cities, has called a “self-appointed public character.” His house sits at a bend in Pearson past which many of the neighborhood’s residents stroll. He’s often in his fenced yard, watching his two golden retrievers romp around with each other. He greets people, asks them about others, gathers news and passes it along.

Once I knew about it, I looked for the owl every day when I walked or drove by the tree, and pointed it out to anyone who happened to be near and told others about it. “Look in that tree about half way up. You can’t miss it.” Soon others were asking if I’d seen the owl. The owl quickly became famous.

It gave us all something to talk about, something to share.

Greg, the mailman, asked one day if I knew about it. I said yes and wondered if it was nesting.

Greg said he’d looked screech owls up in a book. Apparently the males find a hole late winter and stand in the doorway hoping the real estate will attract a fine female. For a while all of us on the street were rooting for our owl, as if it were some gangly teenaged neighbor boy we hoped would find a girl for the prom.

One day I noticed the owl was bobbing its head up and down, and I thought perhaps it was some sort of mating dance. I never heard it make a sound.

The mailman’s interest prompted me to do my own research. The male screech owl stands about ten inches, the size of a brick, but weighs only about six ounces. It’s wingspan is twenty-four inches. Feathers have two color phases, gray and reddish brown. This one was in its gray phase.

Screech owls apparently eat insects more than anything else. Natural History said that in the stomachs of 255 specimens, 100 contained insects only, 21 had a mouse or two, 38 had birds, 21 had lizards, nine had crawfish, four had frogs and salamanders, two had worms, two had scorpions (they weren’t from around here), and 43 were empty.

The text said screech owls favor orchards.

It got so every time I passed someone on Pearson we talked about the owl, which was usually in view, standing there as motionless as a palace guard. There was something unifying about its presence – or perhaps having its presence to talk about linked us together as fellow neighbors.

I discovered not everyone knew about the owl. On Danville, for instance, around the corner, I mentioned it to the Merrills one day, and they hadn’t heard about it. They live closer to the tree than we do. But while they spend a great deal of time outdoors in their yard, cultivating one of the finest flower gardens in Montford, they probably don’t walk this way.

This made me realize how a neighborhood such as ours has zones within it, defined by routes that particular people take, groups of people they consequently get to know, and gossip they share. An adjacent zone will have a different group and different news. Having a dog to walk takes me across several zones.

The Merrills live close enough to know the tree I was talking about, but not the owl. When I talked with friends on Panola, a more distant zone near Montford Park, they didn’t know about owl or tree.

The Merrills, however, did have a story about screech owls: they said that a garage up Watauga from them used to have a nesting family of owls that wailed at night in that eerie human way of screech owls and for awhile kept them awake thinking someone was in distress.

I found that people liked talking about the owl, liked knowing about it, looking for it, remarking on it to friends and strangers alike. A mocking bird, sparrow, or robin would have been unremarkable. What is it about owls that makes them remarkable?

Perhaps it's the rarity of seeing one. But we do not often see junkos in the city, and most people would think it strange for me to tell them I’d seen one, and I doubt they’d ask me where, so they could see for themselves.

Perhaps owls attract us because they are night creatures and thus mysterious. But then, few of my neighbors are as interested in bats as they obviously are in owls.

No, I think owls (and hawks and eagles as well) interest us because they are raptors, high in the food chain, and that we like them for the same reason we like ourselves, because we think they are superior to other sorts. Our owl stood in its hole with a regal air of superiority.

That is, until a mob of blue jays harassed it one day and drove it off.

Ken told me the news when I asked where the owl had gone, for the hole had been empty. He said one afternoon he’d seen jays flying around the tree making a lot of noise. We haven’t seen the owl since.

Many of us were sad to lose a neighbor, sad as well to lose the subject matter of our conversations.

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