Saturday, November 14, 2015

After Paris: An Owl, An Offering

Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.
—Adam Zagajewski
(Translated, from the Polish, by Clare Cavanagh.)


Yesterday, I watched a Great Horned Owl fly from the end of a creance line, her once fractured wing now strong enough to carry her across the soccer field.  A farmer found her over the summer with one end of a string knotted around her wing and the other end around a telephone wire.  Who knew how long she’d been dangling upside down like a broken, abandoned kite? 

Carol, the rehab center’s director, explained that the fracture was likely from the impact or her struggle to get free.  Weeks passed before Carol was certain the owl would survive since birds, like humans, experience shock after trauma (in animals called “capture myopathy”).  However, in birds and other animals (rabbits and deer), this can be fatal, rapidly burning up all available glycogen stores.  These animals can drop dead at the moment of trauma (e.g., trapped in a “humane” cage) or days and weeks later from systemic organ failure.             
This owl survived and was magnificent.  Ombré feathers moved from gray to brown to ruddy red to white, like a desert rock face changing with the light.  Feathered tufts, like flaming antennae, grew from each side of her head.  Her face was a great disc confined between dark parentheses.  And her eyes were big, yellow honey moons.  She swiveled her head, a perfect radar dish, and fixed her gaze on me.  Was she wondering if I was predator or prey?    

At the rehab center, Blake, a volunteer, had strapped jesses around the owl’s legs; the anklettes, more hipster leather bracelets than falconry equipment, were fastened to the one hundred and fifty foot long paracord.  Jess, another volunteer, cradled the owl--a strange, otherworldy infant--while Blake zigzagged the line on the ground to prevent it from spooling out too fast, and to control the owl’s flight speed.  The owl was a little like a ventriloquist’s dummy: body still, head wheeling back and forth, eyes wide open, and beak clacking in warning.  In the sky, two crows circled us, cawing in protest over the owl which they’d immediately spied from their perch in a nearby pine tree.  Great Horns make meals out of crows. “We’ll have to leave if they start divebombing her,” Jess said.         
When the crows finally scattered, Jess launched the owl: one hand on the bird’s back offering a steadying momentum, the other under its taloned feet, thrusting them forward.  The bird beat its broad wings in rapid succession, gaining altitude, and then opened them into a four foot extension.  Each beautiful, tough feather worked with the others, flapping and gliding, flapping and gliding. 

The leading, serrated edge of an owl’s flight feathers, or flutings, muffles the rush of air over the wings, allowing the owl stealth flight.  Birds die from feather trauma: a long, vertical barb runs down the center of a feather, and similar to a straw, sucks blood up to the smaller, horizontal barbs and hooklets; if the feather breaks and the wound doesn’t clot quickly, the bird can bleed out.  “It can take years to rehab a bird with trashed feathers,” Carol said.  Before, beyond a simple understanding of a feather’s general flight purpose, my curiosity had ended in aesthetic admiration of the white and gray seagull feathers I’d twirl between my fingers at the beach, or the shimmering blue jay feathers I’d find in my backyard. 

Beautiful and necessary.  Delicate and tough.        

The owl picked up speed; the line tensed and went taut.  The bird tumbled to the ground, startled out of her intention: clearly the line of maple trees across the field.  The crows swooped in again with their vociferous complaints.  The owl waited, feathers puffed, clacking loudly, necessarily hamstrung by the line.  In a few weeks though, the owl will be released back to home ground in Erie, back to instinct and chance without the safety and constraint of the line or meals of pre-butchered rat dusted in vitamin powder.  Before Blake launched her for a second run, I ruffled my fingers over her head, through the soft, bristle feathers.  The owl stared at me, blink! blink! and then turned away, eyes back on the blue sky.  She didn’t want to know me at all.  A reason for joy.