We’ve lived in this patch of woods for the last 30 years. Because the forest comes right up to our doorstep, we are often visited and entertained by our wild neighbors. Our most unusual visitor was a fisher, who we believe was after an opossum that we had glimpsed. The fisher, who usually lives to the north of us, spent a day just outside the window shredding a large decaying elm log that we believe the opossum was hiding in. In between frenzies of log destruction, this big, sleek, brown weasel lay on his back, paws up, basking in the warm fall sunshine.
Our neighbors regularly see wild things too, and our neighborhood has a wild-thing-grapevine. “Have you seen any bears?” Greg will ask. Or, Augusta will report in about the neighborhood bobcat which we have yet to see. “I just saw it between our house and your house,” she’ll report.
So we meet on the road or in the field and check up on the kids, the grandkids, and where the wild turkey flocks are and have the coyotes been singing and did you see the eagle soaring over the village this morning. “The eagles bring good fortune, you know,” we’ll say.
Barred owl on Tim’s land. Photo by Jan King
This morning we glanced out the window at the bird feeder and saw one of our favorite neighbors perched on the branch of a basswood sapling. Around here we call it Old Fluffy. Others refer to it as a barred owl. This one, which had a loud-mouthed blue jay heckling it, was placidly scanning the fresh snow for signs of voles, mice and shrews. Old Fluffy looks like a sleepy feathered cat on a branch. I imagine this is the same bird that we saw yesterday while we were cutting firewood.
Barred owls hunt and call during both the day and night. That means we forest residents can hear them hooting out the question, “Who Cooks for You?” 24/7. Occasionally we heard three of them repeatedly asking each other that question. First an owl nearby wonders whose cooking, then off in the distant an Old Fluffy high on a perch inquires, and then a third, in the neighbor’s woods, hoots the question. It’s like a tennis game between three hooters.
However, unlike the Who Cooks for You call, barred owls around here do not make their hair-raising cackle, shriek, and screech calls during the day. They save that for the dark of the moon when the night forest seems to expand and take on a new life. Three owls exchanging volleys of shriek, screech, and cackle are enough to make even the largest and bravest forest dweller ponder their mortality.
It’s calls like these that have made humans down through time make up stories about owls like Old Fluffy. In our tamed-down version of Halloween, owls still accompany witches flying through night skies on, of all things, brooms. I have no idea what the brooms are about, but owls were supposed to represent death. Many ancients believed that if you heard an owl calling somebody was going to die. That is probably true if you are a mouse or a rabbit, but if a human died every time we heard an owl, there would be nobody left standing.
However, in ancient Greece, if an owl flew over Greek soldiers before a battle, they took it as a sign of victory. That’s a little like our neighborhood belief that an eagle overhead brings good fortune.
I’m doubtful that owls are portents of either victory or death. But I am certain that we are blessed to have these amazing creatures as neighbors. Old Fluffy is indeed amazing. With all of her feathers poofed out she looks as big as a housecat. But under all of that poofiness is a tiny body weighing less than 2 pounds. But it’s a body of a steely super hero. She can, in total silence, float down and capture a cottontail weighing more than she does. She can also hear and locate a mouse deep under the snow and then swoosh down and grab it without ever seeing it.
So, as I watch Old Fluffy perched at my bird feeder, I am thankful to know this wonderful creature — even if she is a terrible conversationalist.
“Who Cooks For You?” I ask her.
She looks, slowly blinks her eyes and responds, “Who Cooks For You?”