(Melissa Hart will read Saturday, February 21, 7:30 at the Corvallis-Benton County Library. We asked her is she would share an excerpt from her new book, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family).
Jonathan and I ate dinner at home and replaced evenings at the cinema with visits to the raptor center so that he could help to train one of the Northern spotted owls, Chenoa.
“Visitors connect better with the birds when they see them outside the mews,” he told me, “and we want them to see the spotteds, in particular, since they’re endangered.”
While he trained I helped out with another shift’s feeding and cleaning and sat outside the great-horned owl’s mew, wondering what it would feel like to walk around with her on my arm. She sat on her perch and triangulated at me, feather tufts poised like my tabby cat’s ears. Once, she opened her beak wide and hacked up a large gray pellet.
“For me?” I laughed. “Oh, you shouldn’t have.”
Jonathan walked down from Chenoa’s mew and kneaded my shoulders. “You’re so in love. Just ask if you can work with her. She’s not gonna hurt you.”
I thought of encephalitis, of wheelchairs, and shook my head.
We left Lorax fixating on the rubber duck in her water trough and walked back up the path to the clinic.
“Careful!” Jean held up a warning hand as we opened the door. “Loose bird!”
Occasionally, volunteers allowed one of the smaller permanent residents to stretch its wings in the clinic. I expected the one-eyed kestrel on the paper-towel holder or a screech owl on the computer monitor. Instead, I looked down to find—mounted on a portable ground perch—a foot-high owl with a round, tuftless head and bright white feathers speckled with black spots. He looked like a cue ball with a beak.
“Kids, meet Archimedes.” Jean stretched her gloved hand toward the bird, poised to grab him if he spooked. The creature’s enormous feathered feet remained gripping the wood-and-Astroturf block.
I remained by the door. “Named for the Greek mathematician? Um . . . his talons are twice as big as Lorax’s.”
“A snowy owl?” Jonathan’s brow shot up. “Is he permanent? How’d we get him?”
Our center had a policy of taking in resident birds native to Oregon. Even I, thanks to our Audubon book at home, knew that the big white owls lived mainly in Canada, Alaska, and Eurasia.
Jean ran a hand through her auburn hair. “Snowies are a gray area. They come down to the lower forty-eight every three or four years to hunt when the lemming population in the Arctic dries up. This guy’s an imprint, though, part of a captive breeding program back east. They couldn’t find a female for him . . .”
“So we got him.” Jonathan bent down to get a closer look. Archimedes clacked his black beak but remained standing on the perch.
I stood silent, staring. At a center where birds came in varying shades of black and tan and brown and white, and sometimes dull red, I’d never seen such an owl. He seemed to glow, lit from within. And he appeared to have a mustache—fluffy feathers cascaded from either side of his beak. He squinted up at me out of slanted yellow eyes that looked too small in his fluffy head and peered at my footwear, a pair of new white running shoes.
Suddenly, he opened his beak and emitted a sound like squeaking bicycle brakes. He scuttled over and jumped on top of my sneakers, spread his vast wings and let out a series of dog-like woofs.
Black talons squeezed my toes. I fought the urge to shriek.
“Jonathan. What . . . what’s he doing?”
Jean knelt and reeled in the nylon leash clipped to the leather jesses around the bird’s ankles. Archimedes stepped panting onto her gloved wrist. “Remember, he’s a human imprint.”
“So why’d he jump on my feet?” I wailed.
Jean grinned at me. “Darlin’, he’s trying to have sex with your shoes.”
“Oh . . . that’s disgusting.”
She laughed, flushed with excitement over the bird. “Harry Potter’s made snowies a big deal. This owl’s gonna be a rock star.”
Jonathan nodded, and I saw a look of longing in his eyes. “So . . . who’s training him?”
“The director’s asked me to work with him. He might’ve been trained at some point—hard to tell. For a while it’ll be just him and me. Then, if I can get him solid on the glove, we can share. Better put him back in his mew now.”
She touched her glove to Archimedes’ legs and he stepped up, but as she took his jesses and stood, he leaped off her arm and hung upside down, twisting and writhing at the end of his straps.
Piercing shrieks filled the clinic. From the treatment room a recovering kestrel screamed. Jean sank to the linoleum, abruptly mournful.
“Here we go again.” She put her free hand on the owl’s smooth white back and guided him—still screaming—to the ground, untangling the jesses from his huge, struggling feet. “If he used to be glove-trained, he isn’t now.”
“How come he doesn’t fly back to your arm like the other birds?” I asked. If a UPS truck rumbled up the driveway while Jonathan stood with Chenoa on the lawn, the spotted would sometimes fly off the glove in a defensive move called a bate. But if Jonathan stood immobile with his arm out, Chenoa flew right back to his glove.
“Snowies are ground nesters,” Jean explained. “If they get scared, they fly downward toward what they think is a safe spot and end up hanging. It’s not safe . . . he could asphyxiate and die.”
She put him in one of the clinic mews and unclipped his jesses, pausing to prod gently around his keel for undigested food.
“What’s he feel like?”
“Like putting your hand inside a down comforter. Want to touch him?”
“No, thanks.” I took a bag of mice from the freezer and set them in the sink to thaw for the nocturnal birds’ dinner. Their brown forms bobbed about in the warm water, thirty tiny, macabre swimmers.
“I’m off to work with Amazon.” Jonathan set a rat on a pie pan and headed up to the golden eagle’s mew.
I began to wash plates and syringes and coffee mugs. Jean spoke over the running water. “I really think,” she said in her meditative drawl, “that you’d make a good bird handler. What d’you say? My offer’s still good—I could teach you to work with Lorax, and maybe someday you could help with Archimedes.”
I turned off the water. The new owl looked like a droll little snowman, albeit a snowman with a foot fetish. Though I knew better, I suspected him of a damned good sense of humor.
“Maybe,” I allowed.
She handed Archimedes a mouse. He took it in his obsidian beak and held it a moment before throwing his head back and swallowing it whole.
“He looks like my college roommate doing a shot of Jägermeister.”
Jean wet a towel and bent to scrub splattered mutes off the floor. “He’s just gotta get solid on the glove. He’s so exotic, visitors are gonna love him.”
“Oh, yeah. He’s amazing.”
If the ardor in my voice surprised her, she didn’t let on. I certainly wasn’t telling anyone just then that I’d fallen madly in love with a foot-fetishistic snowy owl who sported a fluffy mustache.
From Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family (Lyons, 2014), by Melissa Hart