Monday, February 14, 2011

`Very Cat-Like in the Face'

Like Nige, I see and hear hawks with some regularity, red-tails in particular, but I’ve lived in Washington for nearly three years without seeing or hearing an owl except online. Our neighborhood is dense with trees but also houses, automobiles, bright lights, whining children and the occasional blast of music, none of which is amenable to birds with nocturnal habits. Feeding opportunities are limited. I’ve seen the likely owl menu -- squirrels, mice, raccoons, chipmunks, rabbits, Chihuahuas and other rats -- but only sparingly. Most of our fauna is non-mammalian – songbirds, slugs, insects, spiders.

Once I assisted a state biologist in the dissection of owl pellets. He was interested in declining owl populations in that part of upstate New York. Owls swallow prey whole but their stomach acids can’t dissolve hard tissue, so they regurgitate bones, claws, bills and the shafts of feathers. The leftovers typically come up wrapped in fur and feathers, and each pellet represents one animal, one meal. Mice were popular that season.

In his journal entry for October 28, 1855, Thoreau describes an adventure one can’t imagine any other major American writer ever having. He’s in his canoe, paddling “under the Hemlock bank” around 3 p.m., when he spies a screech owl sitting on a hollow hemlock stump, about three feet off the ground. They stare at each other and Thoreau records a precise description of the bird’s eyes (“great glaring golden iris”). After ten minutes, Thoreau lands his canoe “two rods above” (Thoreau was a surveyor), sneaks up behind the still-perched bird and grabs it. It snaps at him, “making quite a noise,” and he wraps the owl in his handkerchief and takes it home. As he writes, the owl sits in the cage he has built for it, staring at him. Thoreau continues:

“A remarkably squat figure, being very broad in proportion to its length, with a short tail, and very cat-like in the face with its horns and great eyes. Remarkably large feet and talons, legs thickly clothed with whitish down, down to the talons. [The preceding eight words might come from a Hopkins sonnet.] It brought blood from my fingers by clinging to them. It would lower its head, stretch out its neck, and, bending it from side to side, as if to catch or absorb every ray of light, strain at you with complacent yet earnest scrutiny. Raising and lowering its head and moving it from side to side in a slow and regular manner, at the same time snapping its bill smartly perhaps, and faintly hissing, and puffing itself up more and more,--cat-like, turtle-like, both in hissing and swelling. The slowness and gravity, not to say solemnity, of this motion are striking. There plainly is no jesting in this case.”

Picture Henry James snatching a screech howl and taking it home wrapped in his handkerchief.

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