THE OWLS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM
It’s unusual to see an owl in the wild. Nocturnal, silent fliers, they’re adapted to not be noticed.
Back in January, when we were in southern Alabama enjoying a sunny day and a hike, Tara and I were surprised when we noticed a great horned owl perched in a tree, awkwardly attempting to find its voice and gesticulating its head. Mesmerized and confused, we spent 15 minutes staring at the giant bird as it studied us and the surrounding landscape. We thought it might be injured or ill.
We were hiking in a mostly empty park, but noticed a figure down in a clearing with what looked like a strange hiking stick. Earlier, we’d also noticed a pickup truck with an odd looking metal box in the bed (pictured above).
Ever oblivious to my surroundings, the possibility that these observances could be related never crossed my mind. Fortunately, Tara is a bit more astute. As she began to realize the owl, the man, and the truck all came together, she also became aware that we were perhaps interfering with some kind of rehabilitation or training.
Always the considerate soul, she walked briskly over to the gentleman and apologized, confessing that we didn’t realize the situation until that moment. With a smile and a shrug, Mark introduced himself. Then, with a tap of his stick and a whistle, he called over the owl and introduced us to Wahlburg. Yes, Mark has an owl named Wahlburg.
During what turned out to be one of the greatest hours of my life, we found out that Mark was a falconer (he works for the 5 Rivers Alabama Delta Resource Center) , Wahlburg was an owl that had been overexposed to humans as a baby, and Mark was training him to be used for education purposes, since Wahlburg wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild. In the crowning moment of that interaction, Mark let me slip on his falconer’s glove, placed a small piece of dead mouse in my fingers, and called Wahlburg over. He swooped down out of a tree and landed gracefully on my arm before swallowing the mouse-meat that had enticed him over. We had a moment. Mine was existential. His was appetite satiating.
A few months later, we were hiking in Ohio when we came across a raptor center, seeming to appear magically in the middle of the woods. They were celebrating the birthday of some new owls, so many of their birds were out on display. Ambassadors for their undomesticated brethren.
Owls hold a special place in my heart. Owls, like almost all animals, hold a special place in Tara's heart too.
Owls hold a special place in human cultures and existence as well. Considered wise by many, sacred to some, a harbinger of death to others, and signs of either good or bad fortune, the legends and beliefs that surround these raptors are as varied as they are numerous. But they are rarely considered just another bird. Their eyes hold sway over us. Their piercing stare cannot be ignored, nor understood. Even with all that reverence, they are still more than they seem. Owls and their raptor cousins (eagles, hawks, falcons, and others) are messengers for the environment. As top predators in their food chains, their health reflects that of their surroundings.
Years ago humans were poisoning the land with DDT, a harmful insecticide (harmful is probably redundant in that sentence). As the raptor population declined, we began to realize the far reaching impact of this toxin. They gave their lives to inform us of our folly.
They continue their mission.
While the populations of many of these magnificent birds have recovered, they still end up poisoned, injured, and killed by our reckless and careless human existence.
Across the country, sanctuaries exist to help the infirm birds that are fortunate enough to be noticed by caring individuals.
In central Wisconsin, one such facility exists in the Raptor Education Group, Inc. (REGI). Barely visible from the rolling country road that leads you there, the scope of the facility unfolds as you start down the gravel drive. There are ponds, aviaries, housing for the interns (affectionately known as "The Nest"), and a large building that functions as a bird hospital. Owl, eagles, swans, and even a roaming turkey greet you and inspect you as navigate the property.
REGI's mission is to care for and rehabilitate injured or orphaned native bird species, while offering public education of wildlife issues. We were there the same day several interns were arriving and preparing for a summer spent rehabilitating and caring for injured birds, while educating the public on the importance of our avian friends. We joined a few dedicated and regular volunteers on a humid but cool Monday morning, cleaning up the grounds of the facility and preparing it for the “tour season.” These tours are a vital fund-raising devise. They are also a crucial tool for educating the public about caring for birds, the earth, and about what REGI does.
We must collectively care for all of the wildlife that surrounds us. Their existence is a gift of nature, just the same as ours. We owe it to them to make up for all the harm we cause in the name of our own “advancement” and convenience. Let’s show them that we too, are more than we seem.