“It’s been in there for about a week.”
Hear this in a normal conversation and you would guess that it was…a package. A newly hung piece of art. Something molding in the fridge. But, no, in this case we were talking about a Barred Owl.
If a Barred Owl got into my pigeon coop and killed every bird it could find, I would’ve been furious. Steve, my friend and former teacher, was calm about the offense. I suppose that’s the value of long years working with animals. The lesson: shit happens. When we brought the culprit indoors for a brief viewing, recompense for the massacre, Steve merely mussed the bird’s head with unveiled appreciation.
“That interaction made losing a few pigeons completely worth it.”
Simone stepped into the coop, wearing clownish, yellow cowhide gloves, wielding a long-arm net. She was composed, from years of doing ridiculous things with birds with pointy ends. Hours before, her falconry Red-tailed Hawk accidentally grabbed her finger, excited over catching a Snowshoe Hare. I might have dribbled in my pants; she deftly snagged the bird. We were a bit let down by the lack of misadventure.
Barred Owls are newcomers to Washington State. Their first record is from 1965, in Northeast Washington. When Steve first started teaching here, they wouldn’t have been anywhere near Yelm. Now I’d hazard they are the most common owl in the state. In an attempt to alleviate pressure on their endangered congener, the gentle Northern Spotted Owl, a federal program exists to shoot Barred Owls where their ranges overlap. Barred Owls are intense birds, I’ve had more close, nearly painful encounters with them than any other bird. They are similarly hard on our native Spotteds, killing them as well as preying on other species like Western Screech Owls. What’s ironic is that their spread is completely due to human disturbance. They flourish in the open, mixed forests our logging practices create.
The receptacle for conveyance away from Steve’s coop was a burlap sack. This morphed into (thankfully!) a cardboard box. I’ve thrown probably a thousand, if not more, birds in bags. A burlap sack still seemed inappropriate. I had visions of it irrupting to scalp me before getting entangled in Simone’s hair. She’d run around screaming while I bled out, the first person to die by owl talon. If I’m going to die from a wildlife encounter, I’d at least like to be gutted by a Cassowary, or maybe trampled by stampeding Wildebeest. “Owl death” doesn’t sound becoming from where I’m sitting, but maybe I’m not into death metal enough.
The did owl bite Simone on her shoulder in the process of getting it into the box. Before that, it had been remarkably placid, likely because its “condition” was “blubbery,” a sure 5 for banding data. Though real damage is dealt with talons, blood welled from the wound inflicted through shirt and sweatshirt. This nibble was fair reason for circumspection around a bird that only weighed a few pounds at most.
Good lord was this bird pretty. Admittedly, I’ve never seen a Barred Owl and thought “you are the source of all our ecological ills.” Instead it’s something along the lines of “Be still my love, so I can count the cryptic chocolate patterning of your plumage and stare into the soulful depths of those black eyes.” We were respectful, but it took its fair share of poking, prodding, mussing of feathers, and flash photography in the process of “rescuing.” I did stay well away from those rapier talons though, I’m not into S&M.
There’s some legal ramifications to transporting and releasing a protected bird (that the government pays people to shoot). So we didn’t take it very far away. I know that’s not how laws work, but I don’t really care. There are greater ills in the world. Somewhere in the forest nearby, this character disappeared into the murky second-growth forest that welcomed his kind in the first place.
He was probably surprised, in a Barred Owl way, that we didn’t eat him. Had our relative sizes been reversed, I have no doubt we would have been dinner. We watched him disappear into the damp afternoon, happy to have experienced this creature for a few hours. Maybe this was rude treatment for a respectable species, maybe a bird on territory; but killing 12 pigeons is similarly impolite.