Comprehensive  Ways To Delightful Healthy Pets
WE HAD TO LOCATE THE BABIES BEFORE DARK. THERE WASN’T much time. But we couldn’t start our search until twilight because owls are nocturnal. I leaped over mossy logs in the dimly lit forest, barely able to see where I was going, as I ran downhill alternately scanning the skies and the foliage. It was hard to believe, but I was actually following an owl as he flew to his nest, with my mouse in his talons. I panicked every time he darted out of view. The altitude and the breakneck pace at which I ran made it hard to breathe, but I couldn’t stop.
I smelled the humid soil and decaying branches under my pounding feet. Everything was a shade of green or brown as I rushed onward. I knew it was dangerous to run while looking upward, but I didn’t care. There was no other way to do it.
Earlier that afternoon, the leaders of our group explained our search and banding mission. We were part of a team whose goal was to protect the spotted owl, a highly endangered species, and their whole habitat by registering active nests so that the immediate surrounding area would be considered protected from loggers. Instead of the loggers clear-cutting the whole forest, the trees around a registered nest would be legally protected.
I had imagined that a government program in this day and age would certainly be equipped with some kind of fancy GPS satellite or thermography tools. After all, a forest is pretty vast, and this was an important project, but I was mistaken. The equipment we used was anything but high-tech. We were given a faded and overfolded terrain map, owl banding equipment, a couple of beat-up walkie-talkies, a plastic tub with a few mice in it, and some makeshift ropes on sticks.
The woman in charge, Diane, was surprisingly small for leading such risky business. She spoke softly while we walked, issuing brief instructions in matter-of-fact tone. Her words were clear, the mission impossible.
“We will climb to the densest part of the mountain forest.” (Sounds easy.)
“We will call the male owl.” (Even owls have cell phones?)
“You will offer him the mouse by holding it on your arm.” (Owls take mice from strangers?)
“He will bring the mouse to his family’s nest.” (What if he’s hungry and wants it himself?)
“We will follow him to his nest.” (Perhaps a pocket helicopter, James?)
“We will take the birds down from the nest and band them.” (Climb a lodgepole pine, with angry parents clawing at us?)
“We will put the birds back.” (Back up the tree? Oh dear.)
She paused and started hiking more quickly. She offered one last instruction over her shoulder as she disappeared around a boulder, “By the way, be careful to avoid any loggers.” (Noted.)
Yes, it all sounds as easy as falling off a log, I thought, as I hopped over one. I followed Diane up the mountain, too busy trying to catch my breath to ask any more questions, but feeling game for our quest.
Diane carried the small tub of sacrificial mice. I tried not to look, but I could hear them moving about inside. I hoped that they had enjoyed a great life until they signed up for this gig. Since I was a new recruit, I wasn’t told to carry much. Still I could barely keep up. The team with all the banding equipment was posted partway up the mountain, awaiting our signal.
Once we were high up in the thick of the mountain forest, we stopped climbing and started calling the owls. Turns out it’s called “hooting up” the owls. We were, in fact, pretending to be an interloping male owl trying to establish a territory. The theory is that if another owl is in the vicinity, he will answer vociferously. He will tell the unwelcome visitor to move on. A hooting war will ensue. Diane showed me how to cup my hands to my mouth in order to mimic the sonorous hooting tone. She offered a few other tips and we began hooting.
We’d been hooting on and off for about two minutes when, as if by magic, we heard an answer. I was stunned at how quickly the reply had come. We challenged him again, and he came in closer to explain his boundaries. A few more hoots and we could see his silhouette on a distant branch. We changed languages and started speaking mouse to him, as best we could. This made him forget about fighting. Instead he wanted to be the first owl to get to the mouse.
Diane quickly had me put on the long leather falconer’s glove and deftly handed me a volunteer mouse. With the mouse on my outstretched arm, it was presumed the owl would notice that dinner was served.
And notice he did. Miraculously, the father owl silently appeared right above me in a nearby tree. I love how they do that; their wings make no noise. They have evolved a unique interlocking feather system that keeps their flight perfectly silent, even to mouse ears. I could see his dilemma. His head moved slightly left to right as he eyed the mouse on my arm. Mouse, stranger, mouse, stranger. Evidently I’m not that threatening, because the decision was made in a matter of seconds. My breath stopped as the owl swooped down and perched on my hand. Holding perfectly still, I braced myself for impact, but I was amazed at how imperceptible his landing was.
He was smaller than I had expected: only about a foot tall and weighing in at what had to have been less than a pound. But I knew that without the glove, his talons would have made a big impression. The owl wasted no time collecting his prize. With a spin of his agile head, he looked down, grabbed the mouse firmly with his toes, and spread his wings. I was incredulous. Prior training had taught me that none of this should have happened. Who knew that a wild Strix occidentalis caurina would accept takeout from a Chicagoan?
There was a millisecond after he took the mouse in his sharp talons—and before he took off noiselessly into the sky—when he cocked his head and looked me straight in the eye. He was less than a foot away from my face. I half-expected him to say, “Thanks, Barb.” He was both completely wild and completely comfortable interacting with me. I was riveted by his beauty. His round, brown head was spotted with white and framed at the top by a pronounced widow’s peak. Many rows of feathers, circles inside circles, held two shiny black eyes, slowly blinking. His face was expressionless but full of intent.
There is a palpable difference between bird-watching and having a bird watch you. I had thought I was the only observer, but his penetrating gaze gave me much to think about.
As I was drawn into his gaze, I felt a connection with him, the thick forest around us, and everything in it. We were all on the same frequency as the earth.
However fleeting, this moment shifted everything. I was pierced by how perfectly the owl fit into his environment. Looking directly into his eyes, I saw deep into the forest and sensed the profound relation between him and his food, his evolution, and our planet. These elements should not, and could not, be separated from any animal. This moment was quiet and personal and somehow took me outside myself. It set in motion a change in me that I didn’t have time to contemplate then. I could only think about the gust of air under his wings as he took flight. The chase was on.
It was quite a scene. Diane and I crashed through the forest pursuing the small, silent owl. Just before it was too late, I caught sight of a stump that would have felled me for sure. I recovered, but I had lost sight of our owl, and worse yet, Diane. Not only was she familiar with the area and more agile than a wood nymph, but she was carrying the maps.
I had to run even faster. But there were two ways down, one steep and one more gradual, and I didn’t know which one Diane had taken. The muffling effect of the forest was intense. I opted for the steeper incline, knowing how efficient biologists can be. Careening down, I was relieved to spot the owl again.
I heard a steady crunching of feet up ahead, which I hoped were Diane’s and not an angry ax-wielding logger’s. The day before, we had found a dead adult owl nailed to a sign that read: “Save The Spotted Owls.” Not surprisingly, we were very unpopular in this community because our efforts to save the owls affected the livelihood of the loggers.
The noise was, in fact, coming from Diane. I found her directly under the spotted-owl nest. There on the branch above us were the two parents. The father had the mouse, lifeless now, still in his clutches. Three white fluffy chicks with pointed feet teetered upon the tree limb. Jackpot! Diane radioed our coordinates to the guys with the banding equipment. They arrived in moments.
The instrument meant to bring the baby owls down from their tree was rudimentary at best. It was essentially a long telescoping stick rigged with a sliding noose at the end. When they first described it to me, I misheard and thought they’d said a “sliding moose.” Now I felt that neither noose nor moose could possibly accomplish what was required. These were wild birds, and I was sure they would easily evade our caveman tools. But the simple tool was, in the end, the most effective, and the least distressing to the little birds to boot.
The stick was raised up to the branch where the white balls of fluff were lined up. The noose was gently placed under the shoulders and cinched tight enough to hold the baby bird without affecting his breathing. Then, unbelievably, we plucked them off the branch and brought them down, one by one.
The birds sat there, unmoving, wide-eyed and calm at the same time, slowly blinking as if watching a mildly interesting bug crawling by. They did not step away or look alarmed as the noose was lowered over their heads and over their brothers’. They didn’t struggle as the crude elevator descended to the ground floor. Slowly swiveling their heads, they observed, but only in an uninterested way. Each retrieval proceeded in this manner. Oddly, the parents were as unconcerned about our presence as their offspring. I suppose it was because we had brought the main course.
All three youngsters had Disney-large eyes and soft, white, feathery bodies. The only feature that spoke of the clever night predator they would become was the large sharp-clawed feet that were much like an adult’s. I felt an urge to put a little owl in my pocket and call it a day. But then he vomited.
Vomiting up a “cast” of unneeded animal bits is a normal physiologic function in the owl. These are bits the owl can’t or doesn’t need to digest—mouse fingers, skulls, vegetation and such—all bound in a neat little package. Evidently, looking at me made this little fellow feel the need to show-and-tell.
The cast was admired by the biologists, who immediately saved it in a baggie. We took several measurements and did a quick general examination. The keel (chest area) was well muscled, indicating that the parents were making a good living in this forest and keeping their kids well fed. A few flight feathers peeked through the fluffy undercoat like porcupine quills held in clear tubes. These owls were basically teenagers. They were not quite ready to leave the nest but were on the verge of gaining the power to glide.
We carefully banded the leg using a colorful blue band with ID numbers on it. Their legs were near adult size, and the band, with a little extra room, would not harm the leg as it grew. Like a clue in a whodunit, the bands would make it easier to trace what had happened to a banded bird if it was sighted or found injured or dead. And we could collect all the workaday scientific information about how they live their lives: neighborhood choices, travel destinations, vacation homes, and favorite dining spots. All part of the small task of saving this species and the entire ecosystem in which they live.
Sporting the new ID tag, each owl was placed back in the noose and slowly elevated back up the tree, where, once his feet hit the branch, he perched again. The other two fledglings, inches away, watched without emotion. I imagined the conversation among them.
“The aliens took me. Gave me this bracelet.”
“Big deal. I got one too.”
But this was a big deal to me. A wild owl had just landed on my arm! The experience was exactly the opposite of what I expected. It was extraordinary. When I was hurtling along, up was down. The unexpected, ordinary. The clumsy humans, gentle. The impossible, easy. The small, infinite. Just when you think you have learned everything, you haven’t.
A month earlier I had been working at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and this expedition seemed to be just what I was looking for. I was always uncomfortable with animals in cages, but I relished the idea of being in their natural habitat. I wanted to be in their world rather than with them in ours. I had anticipated a distant view of mature owls and a lot of work with computers. I knew it was unlikely that I, personally, would actually find a nest in the great wilderness. But I eagerly anticipated the chance to try.
Turns out, it was a mind-bending event. My perspective on the world had been deeply altered. I had an insider’s view of the world of the spotted owl, and I was overjoyed.
As we headed back toward the cabin, the disarray of the forest seemed suddenly manageable. We might actually do some good here. My step was light. I was barely aware of the many scrapes and bruises I had accumulated. My neck was stiff, but I hardly noticed it. It was dark now, and even the full moon didn’t illuminate our forest path much. It only added contrast and deeper shadows.
We kept our voices subdued, not wanting to provoke any angry loggers, but I noticed my body was expressing my jubilation and delight for me. I was skipping down the mountainside. Did I mention a wild owl had just landed on my arm?