By Kathryn Miles
The barred owl arrived in the full light of morning, silently landing on an ash branch at the edge of my yard. There she sat for the better part of a day, draping belly feathers over her otherwise bare feet and closing her eyes against the shrill wind. I might have overlooked her entirely, had I not risen from my desk to answer the phone or make another cup of tea or whatever else it was that caused me to stir at precisely that time. But, because I did, I caught the settling movements of this raptor. And I was captivated.
Owls seem uniquely suited to prompt this response in us. As I sat on my kitchen table, watching this one fill the canopy of the ash tree, my mind flitted from a sense of immediate wonder to the complex mythic associations an owl brings each time it lands in the company of humans. I thought about Thoreau’s barbed celebration of owls as harbingers of a nature we are inclined to miss. I recalled that Athena—the Greek goddess of wisdom and justice—bore the symbol of an owl, as did Lilith—the dreaded Sumerian goddess of death. And that, more recently, women from Brittany and Saxony believed that owls bring fertility and healthy childbirth, while their counterparts in Morocco and Malaysia alleged that owls kill newborns and steal the souls of children. Even today, many Cameroonians call owls “the bird that brings fear,” while their neighbors in Indonesia and Japan respectfully disagree, insisting that an owl call remains the best predictor of when it is safe to venture outside.
It must be tough business maintaining so many mythic associations in so many places. Throughout that first morning the barred owl sat in my tree, I thought a lot about these contradictions and more, wondering how such a quiet animal manages to shoulder them against an unforgiving wind.
Only later in the day did another thought surface.
For all the disparity in the collective mythology of owls; these stories nevertheless share one very important quality: they are set at night. And with good reason. Over 125 owl species exist worldwide, and the vast majority of them are nocturnal. Of the twenty types of owls present in North America, only five are considered diurnal, or daytime, hunters. The barred owl is not one of these five species. Instead, this bird has evolved in such a way that it functions best under the cover of almost absolute darkness. There, its keen eyesight and nuanced auditory system offers the barred owl great advantages over daytime dwellers, who tend to stumble around in a place made foreign by lack of illumination. Not so the barred owl. It knows every inch of this unseeing landscape—and it seems at least to intuit that darkness deprives other animals this knowledge. This attribute made me all the more intent on monitoring my unexpected morning visitor. And so I watched for hours that first day, worrying about what her presence might mean.
Admittedly, barred owls are not uncommon in the wooded foothills of Maine, the place I currently call home. To the human eye, this is a liminal landscape: a daytrip away from both the rocky coast celebrated by Rachel Carson and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Mountains, where John Burroughs and countless other nature writers sought inspiration. Unlike those more iconic places, my landscape is one of intersection and contrasts—where hard-scrabble farming and a waning timber industry meet emerging enterprises like biotechnical labs and guided hunting tours. Life here tends to be scruffy, and it bears little resemblance to the New England featured in glossy brochures and guidebooks. Nevertheless, it is a habitat members of the Strigiforme family seem to love, what with its savage swamps, mixed-coniferous woods, and vole-thick meadows. In fact, this place is what scientists at the Audubon Society like to call a “hot spot” for owls, and species like the barred have flourished here since long before any human arrived.
When my husband and I moved to Maine eight years ago, we were captivated by the overwhelming presence of this place’s owls. Lying in bed at night, we’d hear the cry, rendered by Shakespeare as “tu-whit, tu-woo,” rise up and out of the dark woods. As we listened, I had no difficulty understanding why generations of people across the globe have associated such calls with the underworld: it seemed such a ghastly voice to my untrained ears. Since then, I’ve grown to love that eerie crescendo piercing the still blanket of night. And I happily side with Thoreau in thinking that this cry somehow heralds a just reminder: that there is a nature we do not recognize or even acknowledge. Perhaps this dark unknowability has been why the mythic role of the owl continues to woo us with the implicit wit in its call. Perhaps it is why the literal owl has remained a welcomed and comfortable mystery for us, occupying as it does those dark and unknown places we can imagine but never really see. On many a call-filled night, I certainly have thought so.
And that, I think, is why I found my quiet daytime visitor so troubling. Because, in truth, she should have been unnoticeably absent—a disembodied voice calling out of the wilderness of night. Or at least a hidden form napping in the cavern of a dead tree or a church steeple somewhere, protected from the elements and waiting out the light until it was time for her shift to begin. Nevertheless, she stayed on that ash branch for hours, still as a secret and unprovoked by the nuthatches sharing her tree or the curious human creeping across the yard for a better look. And that was where she remained, day after day at the edge of my yard. Her continued presence signaling, with its lit silence, that something in the world is amiss.
But what is that something?
Perhaps the most unsettling truth of all is that no one knows for certain. While we may love that which is unknowable about owls in story, most ornithologists say that mystery can be frustrating as hell when it comes to science. What little they do know is that the diurnal appearance of an owl usually indicates the bird is food-stressed. They also say a lot of these hungry birds have been making appearances throughout the northern United States lately. For the past year, avian listservs and blogs have been humming with reports of daylight sightings of owls like the barred, as well as the surprise appearances of great gray, snowy, and boreal owls—three species normally found far north of the continental U.S.
Biologists are taking notice. They say rehabilitation centers are filled beyond capacity with sick and injured owls. Reports of dead owls found on roadsides are rising as well. Accidents between raptors and vehicles aren’t all that unusual in and of themselves. But the growing frequency of these incidents is. So, too, is the rising number of owls breaking the boundaries of what we consider normal habitat and behavior: like foraging at a Dunkin Donuts dumpster in Burlington, Vermont; nesting on the fields of Boston’s Logan Airport; or dropping down from Canada to hang out in places like downtown Missoula and Seattle. A couple of years ago, an unprecedented 5,000 great gray owls—North America’s largest and most mysterious Strigidae—moved from Central Canada to Northern Minnesota. This unexpected arrival brought at least as many birders, who traveled from as far as Eastern Europe to observe these raptors. Some were content to take photos of the great grays. Others, however, came to ask what the presence of these normally boreal birds might mean.
Similar questions are being asked where I live, too. Earlier this season, a great gray appeared on the edge of our town and claimed a nondescript powerline as his perch. There he, like my barred, sat day after day, patiently enduring the gaze of birders and curiosity seekers who drove down the otherwise lonely gravel road to catch a look. Like me, they were spellbound: enraptured by mythology and life-lists and the cognitive dissonance created when anything—creature or otherwise—is utterly out of its place. It’s a difficult and complex thing to stand, gazing upwards, and scrutinize an animal who, distressed, was forced to cross so many natural borders. And, yet, in some real ways it seemed as if all we could do—or rather, what we needed to do—was bear witness.
This, of course, is a human conceit—and one that risks anthropomorphism in some serious ways. Wild animals don’t want witness. Our local bird expert says he thinks the owl came here because it wanted to die alone. That assumption probably butts up against anthropomorphism, too. But then again, it probably also gets closer to the owl’s instinctive response.
And, in the end, it’s what the owl got. A week after the great gray arrived, he was found dead on the ground near his perch. As far as we know, no one was there when he died, since it was at least a day or two before his body was found. Once it was, state wildlife experts conducted a post-mortem study, hoping to determine what brought this visitor across several discrete ecosystems and eventually caused its death. Their findings were sobering.
As best as the biologists can tell, the owl died precisely because it crossed ecological borders. More specifically, it died of an infection known as aspergillosis, which is caused by a fungus commonly found on dead leaves and dried grains, as well as compost piles and bird feces. In humans, the condition can cause an acute respiratory condition for people with asthma or compromised immune systems, though most of us fend off the fungus with no noticeable effects. Most resident predatory birds do, too. In both cases, that’s because we’ve adapted to this landscape and the microbes that share it. Those owls coming down from northern territories, however, are far more susceptible to the disease since their lungs haven’t acclimated to the presence of the fungus.
Normally that’s not a problem, since owls prefer to stay put: a predilection that makes the current movement of these raptors all the more beguiling—and dangerous. Most frustrating of all, no one knows for certain why these owls are now, uncharacteristically, leaving their own landscape for potentially compromising ones.
For if anything, the presence of these raptors seems to signal the very real boundaries of modern scientific knowledge. And none of the standard ways of talking about avian behavior or movement is sufficient for this current predicament. Take migration—that bridge linking summer and winter habitats for most birds. There is a regularity—in terms of specific habitat, path taken, and moment of travel—that ties this movement from year to year. Not so with the barred and great gray owls. Instead, their shifting relocations seem more akin to avian irruptions, which unexpectedly and irregularly cause a large population to move en masse from one landscape to another.
There are many reasons why these mass movements occur, but in the case of owl relocations, global climate change and human intervention are probably to blame. Most northern owls prefer to maintain territories deep in the boreal forest. This massive swath of canopied land covers over 1.3 billion acres in central Canada, creating what was once an untouched haven of mature needleleaf trees. A rapid increase in the number of forest fires over the past decade, coupled with increased logging pressures, has changed all of that. It also caused the collapse of food sources for northern owls, thus pushing them into my region. This same irruption theory may explain why other northern owls are appearing in densely-populated downtown cities like Minneapolis and Chicago, and why a barred owl now spends her days in my tree: they are competing with too many other owls during nighttime hunting. The added population pressure has exceeded the carrying capacity of the landscape, and the owls are hungry.
This hypothesis makes a good amount of sense, but so far science hasn’t been able to find much conclusive about the owl irruption phenomenon—except that it is increasing. Meanwhile, much of what scholars thought they knew about the range of owls is changing as well. With or without the increased forest fires, climate change is beginning to redistribute territorial ranges for a variety of species, and that is making it increasingly difficult to classify basic population shifts in a scientifically meaningful way. Much of this difficulty comes down to shifting notions of borders and the spaces they separate.
Take my backyard visitor. If you draw the number seven across North America, beginning with a horizontal bar across Southern Canada, and then a thick diagonal slash cascading from Nova Scotia down to the edge of Louisiana, you’ll have a pretty good sense of the barred owl’s range. That wide, zigzagged territory makes discussing latitudinal shifts of the species difficult. In its strictest sense, the term “irruption” applies to the appearance of a species in a biome where it is not normally found. But barreds have been calling my landscape home for centuries. We don’t have a word for what it means when there are suddenly a lot more of them in this area. Or what to call it when they begin to push further westward, taking over territories normally held by their close cousin, the spotted owl.
In fact, we don’t have words for many of the things happening to North American owls right now. Even when you commit to studying them, owls are maddeningly allusive, scientifically speaking. Masters of camouflage, these birds of prey are usually difficult to locate during the day, when their cryptic coloration mimics the texture of tree bark and limbs. At night, they are adept at nearly soundless flight, thanks to a unique layering of feathers on their wings. Both factors make tracking and observing owls downright difficult—even for trained experts. To make matters worse, wide variances in natural populations from year to year complicate any attempt to parse out trends in total owl numbers once you find them. If you then add in the fact that most formal ornithological research is restricted to a single bioregion (thus precluding a thorough understanding of an irruption from one region to another), you have a recipe for spotty knowledge at best.
Herein lies the greatest irony of the 21st century owl: although much loved by amateur birders and pop culture aficionados alike, these birds have been tremendously difficult to study. As a result, we know a lot more about their place in comparative mythology than we do in place-based ecology.
This is a particularly bitter pill for me to swallow. Like a religious novice, I find great solace in the sanctity of science: its elegant simplicity, austere language, and perhaps most importantly, its implicit belief in the knowability of the natural world. Linnaean taxonomy provides the rubric through which I have come to know the trees and animals in my forest. The principles of ecological niche theory explain the degree to which I might live within—or take from—that locale. I’d like to believe that these scientific concepts and not only help me understand my place within this little biome, but also give me the tools I need to make it a sustainable one. So how can it be that biology cannot explain the place of owls in this same landscape?
The answers are as varied as the symbolic representations of owls across the globe. When I contact Susan Gallo, a wildlife biologist for the Audubon Society, she speculates with me about possible causes. One reason for our lack of uniform answers, she says, might stem from our all-too human suppositions about landscape. Gallo says that she and other researchers have always known that they lacked crucial information about the status of owl populations, but for a long time, committing to a formal investigation seemed too daunting. It was, she admits, a kind of statistical inertia across the country.
According to Gallo, ornithologists within any given region knew that they needed to be studying owls, but they just couldn’t build momentum in the scientific community for a collective survey. She adds that, in the past, this lack of initiative didn’t really seem like a problem. For most state wildlife departments, the decision not to track owls was based on a long-held assumption: most endemic owl species were both common and secure. Now, though, the increased sightings and mortality rates are forcing these same scientists to wonder if their assessments remain valid.
Luckily, says Gallo, owls do offer one advantage: they are among the most vocal of all birds. The usual accoutrements of bird communication like showy plumages or elaborate mating dances don’t do much good in the dark, so owls have adapted verbal ways to telegraph these messages. They use that haunting “tu-whit, tu-woo” to vocalize territorial concerns, invitations to mate, or just as a constant audio transponder announcing their presence to anyone who might be interested. Recording these solitary voices in the night may be the first step towards solving the emerging owl population crisis. And so, across North America, groups like Bird Studies Canada and U.S. Audubon chapters are launching new owl monitoring programs intended to glean a better understanding of how many owls exist where.
I tell Gallo that I find a kind of salve in knowing that this research is happening. I’ve been watching the barred owl in my ash tree for a week now. Each morning, she arrives without a sound and sits, well past when I’ve had my lunch and while she presumably looks for her own. I want to know more about her and other owls. I want to hear them once again during their nocturnal hours and understand what little information conservation groups are gathering. I beg permission to join a group of monitoring volunteers. Happily, Gallo agrees.
And so later in the week I join resident ornithologist Dave Potter and nine volunteers rendezvousing in a frosty parking lot just after midnight. The volunteers look half-sleepy, half-wary in the dark of night. Most stay in their cars, staring at an invisible point somewhere on the horizon. Others lean against the van we’ll be taking, looking like they appreciate the security of a boxy, lit vehicle. Dave laughs at our timidity and reminds us that we’re on owl time now. That means we’ll probably be out until 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., depending upon the whims of the nocturnal birds. It is surprisingly cold (about 23° F by Dave’s count) and disappointingly windy. I am wishing I had one more layer on top of the five or so I am already wearing. Dave, who is sporting four brightly-colored flannel shirts and a brand-new stocking cap, seems undeterred by these conditions.
Tonight, Dave’s accomplices range in age from their late teens to early forties, though it’s hard to tell for certain with all their cold-weather gear. A few admit they are Dave’s biology students and hoping to garner extra credit—or at least their professor’s favor. All say they are avid birders and repeat participants in the study. Once inside the van, they laze around with comfortable experience and a vernacular to match. These birders love rhyme: they refer to the count as an “owl prowl,” to themselves as “bird nerds.” Eight of the ten volunteers are women, which Dave says is a typical demographic for his research expeditions. When asked, he says he would prefer not to speculate why. The women look relieved by this refusal.
By way of orientation, we lean towards the driver’s seat of the van while Dave plays the standard CD issued by Audubon. The disk begins with several minutes of silence (time to assess ambient noise). This deadtime—which we will learn to rue while standing in the pre-dawn chill several hours later—is then followed by a series of three owl calls: long-eared, barred, and finally the great horned.
As we listen to the 13-minute recording, the other volunteers identify all of the owl calls before Potter announces them. Miraculously, they can also make out the sounds of Canada geese, nighthawks, and other seemingly imperceptible calls comprising the background noise on this recording. I am impressed. And deeply intimidated. I say as much and get the impression this pleases my new friends.
As we drive to our first of ten stops, Dave explains that, when we return sometime just before dawn, he will feed our information into a new international database on raptor populations. The data-point provided by our inky time outside will hopefully help to answer the question of how seriously climate change is changing avian populations—and the places these birds call home. He says he also hopes it will tear down some of the boundaries science has erected for itself.
“The question of owl movements isn’t going to be answered by researchers and scholars. The long-held belief that only they can solve natural conundrums is an outmoded myth of the most dangerous kind,” he says. “The only way we’re going to get answers is by engaging the public in citizen-based observations. Not by relying on hotshot researchers. The sooner we get rid of those distinctions, the sooner we can learn something.”
I tell him about my own observations of the barred owl who has been spending her days in my ash tree. Dave nods silently, then says that he has a barred owl spending its days in his yard, too. His, though, is smaller than the shape I approximate with my outstretched hands. Based on that guesstimate, he thinks his barred owl is probably a male. Dave’s wife, Lonnie, keeps track of the owl during the day, and he thinks the two have formed something of a bond. She’s named the owl Ernest. Dave says he likes to start some of his classes with updates on Ernest to get students thinking about applications for the otherwise abstract theories they are learning.
This prompts much commentary from the back of the van. All of our fellow volunteers, it seems, have something to say about on-the-ground inquiry. They rave about the experience of cataloguing these owls, in spite of the cold and the quizzical looks from passers by and even, on at least one occasion, a nearby homeowner who responded to their CD with a shotgun blast. They say that, each year, they swear they will never do this again. But the mystery and the romance of this singular bird keeps them coming back for more.
I share with them what little I know about owl symbolism. I also admit that, interest in comparative archetypes aside, I am a child of the early 80s. I was reared on ads featuring wise Mr. Owl determining how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. Or Woodsy, reminding us to give a hoot about protecting against litter and vandalism. That’s my personal brand of owl romance: one based on a somewhat preachy, but nevertheless well meaning, knowingness.
“You know,” I say. “An avian after-school-special.”
The volunteers give me a polite stare. Most are too young to remember this kind of cultural iconography. Or maybe they just don’t like my frivolous allusions.
“There’s so much magnetism involved with owls,” says one of them after a moment’s pause. “That’s what I love most. Even if you’ve heard them a hundred times before, you understand why once you hear your first response call. It’s magic,” she promises me. “You’ll see.”
I want to tell her that I think the mystery here is part of the problem. But, instead, I simply say that she’s probably right.
The first of our stops takes us to a gravel road sandwiched between a demolition derby race track and an industrial composting facility. It is a place far from the mystical scenes described by the volunteers when they waxed poetic about depictions of owls. The remaining stops are similar: below flashing traffic lights, tucked inside a much-decorated cemetery, or along an overpass near a highway. Even in a working landscape like ours, these are compromised, well-worn spaces: far more akin to the parking lots of Dunkin Donuts and the tarmacs of major airports than the ideal habitat I had imagined for a nocturnal raptor.
I ask Potter about the nature of these stops.
“Mostly we just pick places where it looks like an owl might appear,” he says. “But that’s just based on our best sense of things. The places where nature and civilization meet are the only places where we have data. It’s about access, really. We just don’t know what’s happening deep in the woods.”
He and other scientists are hoping that the composite results of surveys such as ours might begin to change that. Once completed, our statistics will be added to two new databases: one created by Bird Studies Canada and another housed at Cornell University. These web-based clearinghouses integrate the information gleaned from other surveys fledging across North America, and they represent the first organized attempt to think beyond local research, at least where owls are concerned. Minnesota and Wisconsin have just started their own citizen-based survey, organizations in Connecticut have begun investigations, too. In time, all of these programs will hopefully provide the databases with enough information for scientists like Potter and Gallo to finally determine concrete trends in owl populations across the continent.
Getting that kind of statistical information is an exercise in patience and chance, though. At our first few stops, we volunteers lean into the wind, hoping to hear a call. A faint chirp in the background at our first stop elicits an audible gasp, followed by hopeful speculation that it could have been an owl. We really, really want it to be. I wonder aloud if this desire affects survey data. Potter shrugs and says he isn’t too worried about that. He knows there are owls here—he just doesn’t know how many.
At our third stop, the volunteers’ prediction proves right: a mournful barred owl somewhere just out of view joins our CD in a long duet of call and response. The sound has an effect no less than that of a strong electrical charge. It and more distant calls sustain us for the first several hours of our trek. Still, and even with our collection of coffee and hot cocoas and snacks, we are a weary group by the sixth stop. Even with the dramatic rise in population, owl calls are sparse this year. The volunteers seem disappointed. By the seventh or eighth stop, a few of them opt to stay inside the van. By the ninth and tenth, not even the novelty of hearing a great horned owl can keep people lingering by the portable radio after the recording has ended. Our crew is ready to go home.
As we make the cold drive back to our awaiting cars, I ask Dave about what we did—and did not—find on our trek. He speculates that we could be witnessing early signs of a crisis brought on by overpopulation and a subsequent lack of food. Then again, it could have just been a quiet night for some reason we don’t yet understand. In the end, he says, there is still way too much that we don’t know about the predicament of resident owls. But one thing remains certain, he says: through their silence, these owls are trying to say something crucial about our environment.
I tell him about Thoreau’s depiction of owls in Walden. There’s a certain foreboding in Henry David’s description: the idea that owls speak to a kind of dissatisfied netherworld, or that their calls announce “a dismal and fitting day” and “a different race of creatures” about to emerge. Am I being melodramatic in thinking that we’re proving this description right? Or that there was a prescience in ancient representations of owl as both wise and ominous?
Dave says he doesn’t know. But we both agree on one thing: if nothing else, the dawn of a new century has unequivocally changed our discourse not only about this landscape and its inhabitants, but also the categories we use to understand it. For the first time, current generations are collectively acknowledging what some have long held true: our climate is changing. Along the way, it is also redefining everything we thought we knew about the natural world, particularly when it comes to the systems we use to make sense of it. So far, too many of our stories and scientific theories are lagging behind this change. It takes examples like the plight of the barred owl to recognize as much. Maybe this acknowledgement is, in the words of Thoreau, both dismal and fitting. Maybe it takes something as silent as the daytime appearance of a hungry owl for us to heed that call and answer it with one of our own. Or, even more importantly, to shift our own sense of tidy boundaries and edges—especially where knowledge is concerned.
These are the thoughts that accompany me each subsequent morning as I look to my ash tree for a sign—or at least for that now familiar presence filling the canopy. I find neither. And yet I keep looking, torn between whether or not I want my owl to return and yet very much wanting to know what has become of her.
The weekend after our trip, Dave emails me with results from the survey: just as he and other scientists suspected, the barred owl population appears to be in trouble. I tell him that my visitor, though once continually present for about ten days or so, has not returned in over a week. I had considered playing the Audubon CD to see if I could woo her into responding, but I worry I might inadvertently send a message about food or territory that would only complicate matters further. I still don’t understand what these calls mean—at least, not what they mean to a fellow owl. I ask Dave if he thinks her absence makes my barred owl a casualty or a survivor. He says he doesn’t know—that we may never know. In the meantime, though, Ernest remains vigilant in his perch at the edge of Dave’s property—looking very much a mythic figure. Maybe, Dave speculates, this silent owl will eventually explain what we cannot.
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