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Outrageous Owls

Hmm, have they gone yet?

He sat ten feet from our door -- all pathos and comedy. As a Barn Owl, he long ago mastered his impression of Walter Mattheau after an all-night card game. His head-feathers stuck out like a frumpy wig, and his large bulk swayed clumsily in the lower branches of a fir tree. Nevertheless, the perfect heart-shape of his face called out to me.

I ran around our hedge in West Virginia just to drink in this eerie character. He peered over his shoulder, condescending to droop his beak in my direction. Other than that, he showed no inclination to care what I did. He spoke nary one sound -- not even the slightest whispery groan.

Doing my best to ignore him, I turned the watering hose on the garden. He didn't need to tell me that human development in his neighborhood might not thrill him. Or did his presence mean this antique relic sought tolerance and sympathy? Did he fly as far as he could and bail out over Appalachia's virtual bird sanctuary? He tucked his head into his shoulders, the perfect image of self-absorbed misery.

For a week, he sat there. His presence opened a hole in our lives. I began to see what fled our American landscape centuries ago: the constant presence of animals that enjoy societies and communities of their own. I began to appreciate the life we once shared with every non-human creature. We thought we came alone, but we never experienced solitude for the 13 years we lived in West Virginia.

As darkness descended, this huge winged thing took up its favorite nocturnal position on our shorted-out lamppost. Innocently, I stepped out our front door. "Blahhhh!" he yelled. I jumped so high that I almost took flight myself. Dracula himself could not unnerve me more. He didn't move, though, just continued observing. This seemed his occupation. I felt like the rat in his new laboratory experiment.

Rooting through books inside -- when my legs finally stopped shaking -- I identified his species. This became a lengthy undertaking because, obviously, animal neighbors don't confide their names or history to humans. So many of them exist -- and I thought people constituted a majority. Quite plainly, I erred. He belonged to a long and distinguished family of Barred Owls. I thought of him forever after as a bard, for he concentrated his full attention on his investigation of our behavior.

For instance, why did we interrupt his very successful hunting? Why did our curiosity peak, blasting into noise just when he mastered silence with every one of his wing feathers? Every book I read explained very clearly that, although considered the most loquacious of his tribe, his entire body qualified as a murderous missile with advanced tracking capabilities. His auditory system found me in the dark, just as it outlined his prey, the ground and even his romantic partners.

So, when he began to make his daytime visits, I suffered equally from excitement and terror. He stopped traumatizing me at the door and started full-fledged demonstrations of his killing skills. Other family members ran out with cameras, catching him in mid-launch. Swirling his feathers like extravagant fingers, he streaked on his missions. Then, he exchanged the lamppost for the garage roof, settling in to monitor our comings and goings.

My part in the ongoing drama concentrated on my specialty: speech of all kinds. I listened with every smidgeon of my talent for mimicry. Behind my ears, I heard him -- because, as The Owl Papers, by Jonathan Maslow, revealed, owls throw their voices (chapter 16, pp. 76-7). If I wanted to know where he flew or rested, his sound would never originate where he wheeled or hunched. If I managed to speak with him, would he too guess where I stood? Or would he imagine me flying invisibly in the dark because his darling could?

The first time I tried his favorite call -- a backwards whistle -- nothing happened. I stood on the edge of a cliff that seemed steeper for his anticipated presence. Every other bird in the forest went right on as before. I tried again and again -- still nothing. So I stepped back from the precipice, retreating from the brink of cross-species communication with a killer that decided not to be interviewed. I went inside and pretended that my schedule demanded better things to do than wait for his answer.

An hour later, it came -- the backwards whistle. Outside, a token waited. Sitting on the empty dog pen -- where our terrier refused to be observed by the bard any longer -- the owl dribbled from his beak a packet resembling a chicken nugget.

"For me?" I wanted to ask. He allowed me to scramble on the ground, within two feet of his reach. From this distance, his folded wings assumed the form of a professorial Harris tweed blazer. His brown eyes peered right into me. Did his hunting trophy now belong in my living room? Tiny white bones unraveled in my fingers.

I shivered, knowing he could dispatch my eyes faster than I could retreat. Where did my research bring me? The local art museum reported that, after accidentally leaving one owl caged with an entire array of exotic birds, the owl alone remained alive after one unholy and very silent night. He showed me his beak as he cleaned his talons. He showed me his wing-span -- outdoing my arms -- as he fluffed himself up and settled into his own comforter. His senses continuously clocked all movements even with his eyes shut.

Speech stood for touch when touch we could not. I settled in to observe, and he allowed it too -- as another favor, I guess. Or maybe reciprocity expressed the new trust between us. We arrived at some level of understanding that admitted he would allow proximity -- and he would take it, too, whether we allowed it or not. In this context, our communication reached unusual heights: He called, and I answered. I called, and he answered, allowing for the fact that he got back to me ASAP.

For hours, I attempted to absorb this wonder. He sailed by the bedroom window, calling with his backwards whistle. I ran down the stairs, answering as I flew. He heard me, in turn, while on a mission in South Hills, perhaps. During the late afternoon, his flecked feathers piled themselves into a heap in the tree at the curve in the driveway, waiting for a car to return. Meanwhile, he diverted himself with more rodent control. His global head turned in the silence like an endless NORAD monitor.

He dive-bombed our son finally, coming within a beak's snatch of the boy's hair. That episode came after he drove straight at our pug, apparently clocking his weight and flipping away at the last second. I stopped talking to him then. Loose lips never served a girl worse. It took me a while to realize I never knew what a backwards whistle meant in owl speech. The better I proved at it, though, the more we conversed. Perhaps he possessed a book somewhere, too, that identified me as a particularly yacky member of my tribe. One bard may simply deserve another.

Loneliness overtook me when I could no longer afford to speak with him. Then I asked a veterinarian why this owl chose to hang around our house.

"Do you own cats?" he asked. I assured him we did. "Then, he's after the kittens," he suggested. When I explained that only adult cats resided at our house, the vet concluded: "He's waiting."

Did owls strategize that way? Obviously, they did, and their cunning exceeded mine. Such lessons Aesop learned from birds and others. And talking animals? They still survive in West Virginia -- just watch what you say to them. Their vocabulary includes 300 words for "eat" and not one for "that girl whose heart stopped because you're beautiful."

Meg Curtis