Sunday, March 12, 2006

I live under the watchful eye of an urban owl. To be more accurate and to see it from his point of view, I am a squatter in his territory. He tolerates me reasonably well. He makes himself known at morning and at dusk when he flies from tree to tree hooting. He does this to create invisible but quite distinct boundry lines for any other owls who might be thinking about enroaching on his universe. I know it's a fairly common occurrance in the country, but in the city, especially where I live which is just a short mile from downtown, it is a rare treat.

I have even had some fairly close encounters with him. Once in the evening, as I was walking out to my driveway to secure my car, he swooped low and fast past me on his way to a big old tree at the far corner of the yard. His wings were spread out full length in a five foot span. He pumped them once or twice as if the make certain I noticed him, then glided up on the air to a gnarled limb. I think it was intentional. I don't know if I interrupted him in the middle of a hunting expedition or what. But I had the distinct feeling he was putting me in my place.

Another time, I was sitting out on my small back deck with friends, drinking wine, and talking about him. It was evening and I was telling my friends about his routines, when all of a sudden we looked up and there he was, sitting right above us on very top of an abandoned telephone pole. Right above our heads. "There he is!" my friend said. We all fell into awed silence. I'm not one for magical thinking. In fact, I am generally careful to stay on the rational side of things. But I'd never seen him do this, and now he seemed to be settled there quite deliberately, showing off.

As far as myth and lore goes, the owl has long been the subject of story and superstition. He's been a changling for witches, a harbinger of death or illness, occassionally but less often a sign of good luck, a protector. I like the ancient Greek view of him: the goddess Athena was so taken with the owl and his wide-eyed view of the world, she kept one as a constant companion and consulted him as a source for wisdom.

According to a naturalist friend of mine, most urban owls are of the Horned variety. Besides me, he shares the neighborhood, with dogs, cats, a significant and scrappy population of squirrels, a charming family of foxes, lots of humans with their regular comings and goings by foot and vehicle, and I'm sure, as he is very aware though I don't catch sight of them as easily as he, a population of small birds, mice, snakes, lizards and other edibles. I (along with other neighborhood bird lovers) contribute to his eco-system by faithfully setting out birdseeds of various kinds, which draws said birds and mice and so, attracts predators like outdoor cats, sometimes a hawk, and this majestic owl.

It can be a noisy, busy place. Ambulances wail up and down a nearby thoroughfare with some regularity, trash trucks and street cleaners come and go, once in a while a train lumbers through. But he is unflappable, deliberate, serene. Far from being an omen of bad things to come, he is my good luck charm. I consider myself quite fortunate to be in earshot of his sharp, hollow call.