The end of winter on the shores of Lake Michigan; cold fogs with gray, sodden skies. At season’s end the scenery is drab. Accumulated mud from melted snow mounds and wind blown trash that hangs in bare branches as tattered facsimiles of summer’s lush foliage. Each morning I carry two gallons of hot water to the bird bath; one for cleaning it, the other to fill it. An aluminum covered electric coil sits in the round bottom of the bath, the resident birds reward me with their continued presence. I remove bird feeders from hooks and take them inside the garage to clean and fill them. Chickadees watch and call from the branches above me. Darting to the lower branches, they anticipate a fresh feast of suet and seed.
Whenever the temperature rises enough to avoid frozen sinuses, I join them under the canopy of an ancient, gnarled pine in the front yard. With a scarf wrapped around my face and frost growing on the wool under my nose, I try to remember August.
When the late winter snows come, it is a psychic blow. It had seemed that winter was loosing it’s grip on the yard; only yesterday I felt the wind just that much warmer. The snow falls thick and fast, piling up on whatever things are in the yard; the old Sunday buggy, the bird bath, the sundial. My small world takes on a surreal look and I can’t identify the lumpy shapes of my own possessions.
The tap water from the faucet is icy cold; I set it to boil for tea. Wrapped in a shawl and warmed by the steamy kitchen, I curl my hands on the hot, round mug, I breath tea steam.
With sketch book and pencils I take a chair at the dining room table before the open curtains knowing I will be inspired by visions of sculpted snow on the Sunday buggy. I slip into a cold reverie, tracing the graceful lines of the iron hardware on the antique buggy. The contrast of black metal and blue white snow is irresistible, unidentified shapes loom in the shadows of snow blown places.
Miniature landscapes in monotone emerge as wet and heavy snow continues to fall in silent and steady waves. There, in the back of the buggy, in a depression of snow is bare wood; no, it is something else. Something inside the wagon; sheltering from the blown snow. Standing closer to the window does not help, the heat of my own breathe fogs the window with condensation. Wiping the glass with my sleeve, I can see something small and brown and huddled. The object does not appear to be moving, I watch for quite some time before I detect the slightest motion. Slowly the top of the object begins to move, oddly; until suddenly it reveals a small face from which blaze the most amazing yellow eyes. With an unblinking angry gaze, the owl holds my eyes to it’s own. Snow clings to it’s feathers lightly, yet the owl seems dry. Undisturbed by my discovery of it, it seems not to mind at all as I fetch my camera and take pictures until I run out of film. The owl never moves. Hours pass as I watch the owl and the owl watches me.
My encyclopedia suggest that owls roost during day time. I had never seen an owl in our yard before, could it be hunting mice out by the bird feeders? In color and pattern I could liken the owl to my tabby cat. The feathers are not simply one color laid over another color; each feather contains stripes and hues, which when seen with all of the other feathers resembles fur as much as anything else. The feathers are ‘puffed’, full and slightly raised, allowing air to gather between the many layers. I imagine that this is how the owl stays dry. I can not see the toes, it seems that the creature has been here for some time, the snow has piled up around it, it seems to be sitting in a small depression of white. Under the wagon are melted spots, like a welder has dropped hot solder; small, the size of a quarter, whitewash, barely visible in the snow.
It is mid-afternoon and I have read all the information I have in the house about owls. Shouldn’t the owl be seeking cover during this storm? Raptors which I had observed in the past were increasingly wary of my presence, but this owl did not seem to be disturbed.
I was aware of a local nature sanctuary and thought that a call to them could help answer my owl questions. After more than a few phone calls later, I located a woman from the City Zoo who suggested that I attempt to carefully capture the owl and that if I was successful, the owl was obviously not well and she would see to it that someone from her network of people pick the owl up and deliver it to a Raptor Care Center.
The task of capturing seemed easy at first. Back to the reference material I read that Owls are fierce! I collect a large bath towel and leather gloves from the garage. I prepare a cardboard box. I step outside in the owl’s frigid world.
It is windy and very wet. Nothing stirs either on the snow covered ground or in the trees. The owl and I are alone in the yard, the Sunday buggy between us. At my first attempt to grab it, it jumps from the wagon to the ground where I fear it will run or flap it’s wings to the street. I position myself between it and the road. It moves with surprising speed over the snow on large feathered feet as I walk toward it, bath towel open and forming a barrier which I hope will help keep the owl cornered. It is so angry it hisses at me. I am surprised it is so fierce while still being obviously too sick to fly. As I come closer and it knows capture is imminent, it falls back, furry feet to the sky as it hisses it’s disdain. Gently I let the towel fall and cover the owl, and gently I scoop it up into my arms.
Inside the cardboard box it makes me aware of it’s displeasure by hissing and ‘clacking’; but it is not long before the warmth of the garage as well as the darkness of the box help the bird to settle into quiet security. With the box flaps closed, I appropriately place a large, gold painted plaster cast of the mythological Phoenix on top, balanced at the corner and testing the plaques ability to keep the box closed and the owl inside while not crushing either. Believing the bird was safe and snug, I return to the house stripping off heavy coat and boots to wash my hands under steaming water. I telephone the Zoo and arrange to have someone come and pick up a captured owl.
For the remainder of the day I find it hard to think of anything else but the owl. How soft the down of it’s feathers were and how beautiful. How golden were it’s eyes that blazed at me with such ferocity. later that evening, after the snow had stopped and cold, tiny stars winked in a clear sky, my husband and I shuffle through the drifts of snow to the side door of the garage to see the owl. But the owl was not where I had left it, the cardboard box was empty. Small, discreet scurrying sounds emanated from beneath the work bench and we took chair and sat quietly, waiting for the ‘scurrier’ to appear. Out from behind an assortment of garage flotsam peered those two yellow eyes. We did not move, we held our breathe. Suddenly the owl hopped into view; hunting for mice, looking for a way out, we were not sure what motivated it’s searching. But turning on the light did not help to recapture it. It played a merry game of hide and seek with us until we provided it with the cardboard box, open and inviting after the harsh overhead light and the maze of garage clutter. Into the box it hopped. This time I made sure it would not escape soon. I taped the box closed hoping that the rescue team would show up soon.
It was late when they arrived. Held up by the snow which still clogged the roads, and then by the ice, the young couple standing in the garage with the small pet carrier knew how to handle an owl. With leather gloves and quick and soundless movement, they transferred the owl from the box to the carrier. They thanked us for capturing the owl and caring for it and left the name of a contact person I could call if I wanted to learn about the owl’s prognosis. So quickly they came and just as quickly gone. The name on the snow white card read “B. Harvey - Raptor Rehabilitation”.
Barbara Harvey is the modern equivalent of a falconer. Her federal license enables her to keep endangered birds, as well as treat sick, injured and orphaned raptors. When not busy at the business of caring for birds, Barbara lectures at schools, local civic organizations, conservation areas and any place that there is a welcome interest in conservation. Barbara speaks and her bird ambassadors drive her points home with their amazing eyes.
Of the individuals who come to barbara’s lectures, most are children. Observing at an early Saturday lecture, I became aware of the strong feeling within children for the preservation of all things natural. Children have been learning that without good stewardship, the earth and many of it’s creatures will not be here for us to appreciate, to do the things that their evolutionary niches have provided. The children in the auditorium that day had a head start on many of the adults who accompanied them. And it is these children who Barbara spoke to.
“The lives of most people today do not leave time for each to notice how beautiful our natural surroundings are: the trees, the geese in the fields or on the wing - we are blessed with the beautiful and lovely songbirds who will entertain you for a healthy handout at a strategically placed feeder. As a child I knew there would be a time in my life when I could fly like the feathered friends I used to watch in awe. Didn’t you want to fly too? Now, a little of me flies free with each bird of prey I am able to release and it is indeed a very special feeling. We don’t live just for ourselves, we live for those who come after us”>
In 1993 Barbara and her husband John, spent $25,000.00 building outdoor ‘rooms’ for injured birds of prey so they can heal properly and hopefully be returned to nature.
Barbara possesses a fierceness about the eyes and nose not unlike the birds she cares for. Her determination is worn like a comfortable shirt. She can tell stories about human predation, misuse and plain meanness of spirit that breaks the heart. She can tell of battles won for the physical rehabilitation of a bird, only to find that for some reason it can not be released back to the wild. And how those birds must be euthanized due to laws regulating the keeping of endangered animals. She can tell of healthy birds residing in zoos which should be flying free. Sasha is one of Barbara’s ambassadors. Sasha is a red tailed hawk also brought to barbara after being shot through the elbow with a hunting arrow as a fledgling. Sasha was never able to fly again, and was allowed to live at the facility to help with educating the public about hawks.
“Hawk” is a standard English name in North America to loosely describe about 50 members of the family Accipitridae. It is used in combination with the names of other birds of prey. “Hawk” can be traced to Old German and Old English verbs related to “have” and meaning to grasp or seize. Hawks can vary greatly in size from 8 to 12 inches in length, to nearly 4 feet. All have powerful wings and legs and a short, stout, hooked bill for tearing flesh, and long sharp claws for grasping and in some cases, killing prey. Red tailed hawks are large sized and a common sight along roadsides and over farm fields. Their name is given due to the red tail feathers which are accented while the bird is in flight. They are the least likely creature to be considered “tame”.
Sasha is a miracle of patience and majesty as the children “ooh and ahh” over her beauty and seeming nonchalance at our presence. Suddenly, in front, where the kids are sitting on the floor, a young toddler tries to crawl away from her mother. Swiftly the eyes of the hawk have the child in her sight; not for long are we allowed to forget what Sasha is and why she belongs in the open skies. The morning passes quickly. I am left with a ‘mind’s eye” image of Sasha at the glove.
Barbara stays in contact; we talk and correspond through the mail. She invites me to help with a small project; she asks me if I could possibly go to the City Zoo after closing and meet one of the keepers there. The keeper will escort me to the hawk enclosure where I am to remove a viable egg from a stick nest the female hawk has built on the floor of the cage. I am instructed on how to incubate the egg and where to take it for the next lap of it’s journey to Barbara’s home.
That evening, my husband and I head for the Zoo. It is spring, but spring on the Great Lakes. There is a cold wind off the water, the air is crisp and I burrow deeper into my jacket as we wait for the Zookeeper to invite us to drive in. I am excited, I have never been in a Zoo after close and I fancifully expect to see animals cavorting and doing all of the things they stubbornly refuse to do during day hours while we are watching them. It is disappointingly quiet. We drive over to the hawk enclosure. Past the big cat building (“Is there anyone outside tonight?), past the otter and penguin pools. The enclosures are lit by large halogen bulbs on tall poles. The keeper opens the enclosure and asks: “So whose going inside?”
My husband and I look at each other, a silent “huh?” written across our foreheads. I volunteer him for the job. The hawks decide that they have not agreed to any of this and that they will stand by that egg regardless of the six foot four inches of human male. A baseball cap fluttered close by convinces the hawks of another agenda; they retreat to the far side of the cage. My husband grabs the egg and passes it to me, I take the egg and cradle it between my breasts until I can get to the car and put it on the warm next we have prepared for it.
Resting on Ziploc baggies filled with hot water and wrapped in a hand towel, the egg is turned every ten minutes We drive to the western edge of Milwaukee to a pet store. There we meet our contact, the owner of the store. She takes the egg and places it on a nest just like the one we had made. The Ziplocs are freshly hot and ready to take the egg the rest of the distance.
Barbara lives in the country in a small community near a vast, marshy wetland. Her home is a compound, built to accommodate birds of all sizes. There are mews for hawks and owls as well as ‘runs’, long narrow, fenced enclosures in which a lure is flown (dragged) for a specific bird to chase. These runs serve a dual purpose, they give exercise to recovering birds as well as being a tool to help birds learn to hunt. At Barbara’s house, the egg joins the owl as well as a variety of other birds in various states of rehabilitation.
Months have passed and it is late spring. Car windows down, hair flying, jackets off late spring. The grass is greener than emeralds, green as the emerald isle itself; begging to be cut every five days and full of mosquitos, bait for finches and feeding nestlings. Barbara calls to tell of a program she will be giving at a public school and invites me to come. I am free with no plans and it will be a good day for a drive. She gives detailed directions, it will be easy to find. Before hanging up, Barbara tells me she has a question for me. “Would you bring the owl home with you and release him in your yard where you found him?” I am speechless for moments; I wonder if she knows how honored I feel that she would ask. I answer an enthusiastic affirmative, we set a time to meet.
The program at the school was wonderful, as usual, but my mind is elsewhere. The birds Barbara has with her were magnificent; old friends: Sasha and Uno the kestrel. But I did not attempt any photographs, I did not wish to draw any attention away from Barbara’s message tot he kids at the school that morning. After her presentation, I help her with the many boxes and props which travel with her to each of the programs. When all are securely packed away for their trip home, Barbara brings a box out from the dark of her van.
“Keep the radio off as the owl can be stressed by high noise levels. He could get out of this box, but it’s unlikely he’ll try. Still, keep the windows up and don’t smoke in the vehicle. When you get home, keep him in a darkened, quiet place until dusk, then take the box outside and open it. He’ll eventually come out when he feels safe and when it is dark enough”.
She places the box in my hands. It is so light; is there anything inside? A trust, held in a darkened box and sealed with instructions. I felt my wings unfurl. “I’ll call and let you know everything”, I say. “And, I’ll try to take pictures”.
It is a quiet ride home and a quick one. I do not want to undo any of the hard work that was put into this owls recovery. I want the best possible outcome to this adventure, I want the owl to stay in our yard, to be part of our lives just as he had before I knew he was there at all.
I carefully carry the owl to the cool, dark workshop. I do not slam the door behind me but close it softly hoping not to disturb the very air in the cardboard box, hoping to keep the owl well until dusk. The hours pass slowly; this time of the year we speed towards summer equinox, the daylight is in the sky until almost 9 p.m. But at dusk I walk to the workshop on quiet feet.
Everything about this day has been quiet: the ride home, our dinner, waiting for dusk, the walk to the workshop. All is silent, the box still closed. Quietly I take the box in my hands. Quietly, I walk to the back yard and enclosed by 6 feet of wooden fence, I gently set the box on the ground and gently peel back the tape holding the flaps together. Once I free them of tape, I do not open the flaps. I still have not seen the owl. Quickly now I walk to the deck and stand in the shadows. Slowly the flaps rise to the indigo sky and a round, feathered body hops on the edge of the box and briefly, before flying off, looks at me with those amazing yellow eyes. This unlikely creature, this owl , lifts me with him on his flight into the darkening night.
Late summer nights, after the traffic has all gone away and the crickets serenade contented sleepers, I stand at the open bedroom window and listen. There, on the night breeze, on the secret currents of the scented air, come the wailing toots of the owl in the obsidian dark and I welcome him home.