There was a cardboard box on the lawn where there wasn’t usually a cardboard box.
It wasn’t that early in the morning, late enough that I was thinking about getting ready to go to work, late enough that I wouldn’t expect to see wildlife out and about, more on the liminal side of broad daylight than dawn. It was a slightly cloudy, cool spring day, so it’s possible a young wild creature could confuse it with twilight.
The box, the greyish-brown color of oak bark or old acorns, was under the apple tree. The dog, an avid hunter, was barking furiously. I leashed the dog on her outdoor cable and walked over to investigate.
As I got nearer, I realized it was a bird. I thought it might be an injured hawk. I’d seen bird nests the size of flying saucers in my woods and knew I had some sort of predator there. Just the night before, I’d heard owl hoots, and as I crept closer and closer to the nut-brown lump, I realized it was an owl.
I stopped about fifteen feet away. He stared at me with his unblinking, giant, golden eyes. I heard a clacking noise and realized the bird was using his beak like a pair of castanets, a percussive tool to create a threatening sound. But other than that, he didn’t move.
His lack of motion concerned me. I thought perhaps he had fallen out of the nest and injured himself. I wanted to see him move, either walk or fly, so I would know whether I needed to call wildlife services.
I inched nearer, about four inches every few minutes. When I got about six feet away, he threw his wings up to make himself look bigger and scarier. That gesture told me that his wings weren’t injured. I stayed where I was and he eventually tucked his wings back down.
Now that I’ve read up more on owls, I realize I should never have gotten that close. They won’t hesitate to attack and can really mess you up. I was lucky that this one didn’t know how to do any of that yet.
I noticed that he had downy feathers and little “ears” on the top of his head, confirming my suspicion that he was a baby, either a fledgling or one fallen out of its nest. Now I wanted to see if he could walk. I crept closer and walked to his side.
I walked a full circle around him, about three feet away. He followed me, turning in a circle exactly as I did. Not just turning his head, but shuffling his feet to turn his body. He didn’t puff up again, or clack, he just stared.
Reassured that his legs and wings seemed unharmed, I left the little guy alone and went into the house to dress for work. When I came back out, he’d flown into the nearby apple tree, confirmation of his ability to move himself safely.
I’m guessing it was a male owl because, unlike pretty much every other life form, male owls are smaller than females and this guy looks pretty small for a Great Horned Owl to me.
In mythology, the owl is used as a symbol of wisdom. In reality, studies have determined that they’re not as smart as the ancient Greeks thought. “Owls don’t have such relatively large, well-developed brains, and when tested in captivity haven’t shown above-average intelligence,” Richard Swifte wrote in the New Scientist. Iowa State University naturalist and owl researcher Paul L. Errington believed that owls were not so much intelligent as instinctual, and wrote in a 1933 letter that “Hawks generally would learn new things much more readily than owls.”
“This bird has the survival instincts of a golden retriever,” I thought the next evening, when I found him thumbing for a ride on the side of the road by my woods. I took this photo from my car window. I half expected the owlet to hop in for a ride. But if you blow the picture up, you can see what appears to be dinner under his right claw.
After some reading, I learned that the Great Horned Owl, one of nature’s most fearsome predators, is at its most vulnerable while it’s fledging. Fledglings can’t fly far, they’re just learning to hunt and they’re weak from hunger. Sometimes they’ll just sit and rest to gather their strength. Once they learn to hunt, they’ll use their talons to crush their prey. I’d like to think he crushed that critter, but it looks to me like a car flattened it for him.
For a bird that can’t fly well or defend itself, my neighborhood is a war zone. There are coyotes, foxes, and hawks. I saw a bald eagle fly overhead once; it looked like something you’d see on a postage stamp. But there are also moles, field mice, rabbits, chipmunks, and squirrels, as well as smaller birds like chickadees and finches. If this little guy makes it past his first birthday, my neighborhood will be a literal smorgasbord of prey options, the Golden Corral of raptor dining.
All close, safe brushes with nature feel special, but this one in particular felt like a magical experience. Partly because an adult owl probably would have scalped me, and partly because it felt like this baby owl knew I wouldn’t hurt him. Which is, of course, some real Dr. Doolittle anthropomorphic nonsense, but that’s how it felt, like we were communicating across species. Say hello to my little friend, the owl.
I haven’t seen him in about a week, but I’ve heard owls in the woods, hooting at twilight. Since I’ve lived my entire life without seeing an owl until now, I have to think that not seeing an owl is the normal course of events, and not a cause for alarm. I am hopeful that he’ll survive and stay. If he’s really my friend, maybe he’ll take care of the woodpeckers and chickadees (really) that are destroying my house.
But that’s a story for another day.