Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Accidental Birder

I think I might be in love.

It snuck up on me, as love tends to do.

It has inhabited my dreams.

And now, for the first time, I saw it.

Our owl.

A few nights ago as I was turning off lights in the kitchen and heading to bed, I heard something. I stopped to listen.


I cocked my head towards our big kitchen window.


"That's an owl," I announced.

"What?" Aquaman said from the bedroom.

"That's an owl!" I repeated. This was enough to get him out of bed. We opened the back door, but kept the storm door closed so as not to frighten anything away. We listened.

"Hoo-hoo-hoohoo." Again. Loud. Right in our own back yard.

"I've been hearing that," Aquaman said. "I thought it was a dog barking all this time!"

And I felt smart. Because I had recognized a bird's call before Aquaman. He is the birder. He is the naturalist. He led groups of people on birding trips for the Whooping Crane Festival when we lived along the Texas coast. He was the one out the road in Alaska for the annual Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival. We have lived along two major flyways: the Pacific Flyway and the Central Flyway. He owns the serious gear of bird nerds everywhere: the harness strap for his binoculars.

I make fun of him for this. Come on. How can I not?

He has even given this harness-thingy that eliminates neck strain to my older brother, a fellow birder. Aquaman and my mom used to talk birds as my eyes would glaze over. We went to hear David Sibley talk once and even I acknowledge the superiority and artistry of Sibley Guides. He talks of such things as "life lists" and other things that I have zero interest in. I have, on many occasions, declared wholeheartedly, "I hate birds." And I have always meant it.

This hatred has a source, of course. It has a reason. And it begins with this evil character:

Looks innocent enough - I'll give you that.

I was probably about four years old. My older sister and I were outside playing. And by playing I mean trying to break a plastic bowl on the sidewalk by taking turns throwing it down, over and over. Why? Because they were new bowls. My father had brought them home and declared to my mother, "They're unbreakable!" Like they'd finally outsmarted their five savage children. Only I heard his declaration. And naturally, I took it as a challenge.

My sister and I would hold that white plastic bowl over our heads and slam it as hard as we could on the concrete. Over and over. We were gonna beat this! Unbreakable. Ha!

Only my sister got sidetracked. She saw something, laying in the grass. A baby bird. Still alive. "Let's save it," she said. She started to pick it up, to place it in the bowl. And at that moment, came this:

Oh, there was more than one - I'm sure of it. And they swooped and landed on her head and pecked and pecked and pecked while she screamed and screamed and screamed, all the while clutching the bowl with the baby bird in it. Their baby bird. Until finally she dropped the damn unbreakable bowl and we ran into the house and went right to the window that looked out onto the sidewalk where we'd just been.

And then the blue jays flung themselves against the window. "Thunk!" Over and over again. And we watched their fury while my mother inspected my sister's scalp. There were bloody pricks along her crown of long hair that was now tangled so that it looked much like, well, a bird's nest.  I was in a real live version of Hitchcock's classic.

I have never forgotten that day. The terror on my sister's face, the fear in my stomach, and the horror as we realized they knew where we had gone to hide and were going to try and get us. I do not remember what became of the baby bird in the bowl.

But we had lots of cats. So there.

I grow up. For the rest of my life, I am cautious around winged creatures. If they fly too closely overhead, I duck and cringe. I hate it when people feed seagulls on the beach. I, at times, ridicule my husband for stopping on the side of the road to observe a hawk or Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (his favorite bird). The Roseate Spoonbill - one of the prettiest birds in the world - does not impress me. I hate birds. And yet I grew up with parents who were bird lovers, have at least one sibling who is still an avid birdwatcher, and married a bird nerd. I will not tell you how many bird field guides we own. I still hate birds.

You understand why, don't you? I was traumatized as a child.

So what's happening?

I was wooed by the hoot.

That first night that our owl made himself known, I suddenly remembered something else from my childhood. I stood, just after nightfall, on the rise above our hay barn. I held my father's hand. We were waiting. Watching. Quickly, my father pointed to the sky. "Look, Katy. There he is. Look look." The biggest bird I'd ever seen flew out from the highest opening in the barn, beneath the light that had just come on with the darkness. I could feel the presence of him as he flew over our heads, silently. He seemed huge -- too big for flight. And he was gone.

"He's going to hunt," my father explained. "It's good luck to have a barn owl. We are lucky, Katy-my-girl."

The farm where I grew up and the barn that was home to our barn owl.

So I have a good memory of a bird, all wrapped up with my father and nightfall on the farm where I grew up and the barn where he painted hex signs to ward off evil spirits and where an owl lived that brought us good luck. So I've been dreaming each night that I hear the owl. At least I thought I was dreaming.

I walk out this morning to let the dog out and I look up into the trees and I see him. Our owl. He is beautiful. My heart races and I am excited and I just stand, trying not to breathe. Trying not to scare him away. And I strain to see him but I can't - he is so high up. I picture my binoculars (a gift from my father decades ago) and pray they are still in my bedside table and I quietly retrieve them. He is still there. I bring him in to focus. Is it a hawk? A falcon? I don't know! I'm not the expert, remember? No ear tufts. Brown and white and gray and black feathers. He is facing the other way but he turns to the side. I can see his hooked beak. And then his head turns further - to look in my direction. This is when I know he is our owl. That 270 degree turn. It can be nothing else.

I again tiptoe into the house, this time to the bookshelves in the living room. I scan the field guides - there are many. Seahorses. Fishes. Insects. Snakes. Birds. That's the one - the one I thought I'd never touch. I grab it and return to the porch. I narrow down the choices, examining details through my binoculars. As I am reading about the characteristic call of the Barred Owl, he flies off. He looks just like I thought he would -- too big for flight. Majestic. It is thrilling.

And the irony is not lost on me. I sit with my binoculars around my neck, field guide in my hands, coffee on the table, alone in my house. Aquaman and the boys are all gone - camping for the weekend. I am home alone. I could be doing anything in the world - whatever I want. And I am keying out a bird.

And I'm enjoying myself.

I feel lucky. This owl has chosen us. I know throughout history, in many cultures, they are considered a harbinger of death. But in our "western" culture they have come to be known as a symbol of wisdom. In my own family culture, they were pronounced heralds of good luck. We were fortunate to have one, I was told.

I'll go with that. I will accept this change of heart I've had towards the avian world because of an owl that chose to reveal himself. I might even admit that I put up a humming bird feeder earlier this year and felt some satisfaction knowing that I am continuing my mother's tradition of doing so. My older brother does this as well. We have become our parents. Perhaps I might even confess that I took a peek at this and it made my heart go pitter patter:

Just keep those evil blue jays away from me.      

No comments:

Post a Comment