Tuesday, May 11, 2010

If I Could Talk With the Animals...

Last night, I drove home to present my mother with her belated Mother's Day gift, which wasn't much, but a few things that I knew that she either wanted or needed. My father followed me out through their garage as I was leaving. As we stood there chatting about the recent floods and a friend's house that was destroyed, I heard a sort of deep, baying sound from the direction of the cliff. It was nearby, so I scanned the trees at the end of the driveway before registering the outline on a high branch: silhouetted against the twilight sky was a medium-sized owl of a horned variety. I pointed it out to Dad, who immediately began imitating its hoot.

The owl responded, eventually flying to a tree nearer to where we were standing. They continued the bizarre conversation until I realized that I just needed to get in my car and go, because Dad would stand there for an hour 'talking' with the owl.

It may seem a little weird at first glance, but my father was a zoologist before he was a physician. He's interested in animals, particularly winged ones- his M.S. thesis was on the Little Brown Bat. The cliff on which we lived attracted all manner of birds, particularly (and somewhat unfortunately) buzzards...how many girls do you know who appreciate their home being known as "The Buzzard Hole"? We were also often graced with numerous types of woodpecker, including the endangered pileated kind.

This owl, however, was not our first, nor will it likely be our last. It was probably a male Great Horned Owl, given its size and general configuration. When I was in high school, a large female Great Horned Owl turned up, disoriented, in the side yard during broad daylight. Dad dragged me outside, warning me to keep a good distance, because the owl was angrily pacing back and forth, hissing; she was a magnificent bird, and only about four feet away. Dad finally shuffled us back inside to let the owl fly away undisturbed.

The funniest owl incident was when I was a little girl, though. During the winter, we always kept a fire going in the family room fireplace. The chimney is larger than the modern standard, and had a large cap on it to keep out birds and other fauna. One night, as my mother was checking the flue with a newspaper torch, she noticed a pair of feet resting on the flue frame. Lifting the torch higher, she saw a young barn owl sitting on the narrow iron ledge. It was too far up the chimney to reach, so we left it there, thinking that the heat would drive it up the chimney and outside.

Wrong. The next morning, we awoke to the small, pissed-off owl perched on the banked ashes of the previous night's fire...with the iron-mesh fire curtain keeping it from flying out into the room.
My father, ever the biology nerd, fetched his leather handyman's gloves, a large Hefty bag, and a towel. I, who was probably nine or so at the time, was designated to hold the Hefty bag open. Dad, still clad in his ratty blue terrycloth bathrobe, pulled back the fire curtain, threw the towel on the unsuspecting owl, and stuffed the whole nine yards into the Hefty bag. He snatched the bag, ran out the back door, and hurled it out into the yard.

The bag opened as it hit the ground, releasing the owl into the yard. It promptly flew to the patio wall, where it perched, glaring accusingly at Dad before flying off. I don't think it was very interested in what Dr. Doolittle had to say at that point...

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