Tag Archives: Barred Owl

The Fragile Season

Midspring was a time of astonishing busyness in the forest, with May Day full of singing and sprouting, building nests and tending the eggs of this year’s hope.

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Then things got tough. Continue reading

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Hooting, drumming, flights so fine…will you be my Valentine?

Love is in the air! It swoops in graceful dark-winged arcs across the drooping tips of Western Hemlocks, rings through the forest in resonant baritone duets. Love hammers its name on strong bare tree limbs. And just before 5AM in yesterday’s misty gray morning, love hooted lustily in the cedar outside my bedroom window.

How do I love thee? the birds ask. Let us count the ways. Continue reading

Dinosaur-Shaped Eyes

An animal’s eyes have the capacity of a great language.

Martin Buber, I and Thou  [1]

Barred Owl Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Barred Owl
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

These owl eyes speak the language of the night, where owls live and move and have their being. In the morning, under this owl’s winter perch, I find the small gray pellets that are the story of the previous night’s successful hunt: tiny jaw fragments interlaced with fur, a femur, a scapula. Silently sailing through the dark forest, scanning for signs of prey, owls read a visual language lost to us in our diurnal speech.

Can imaginative presence help us glimpse the owl’s language? Let’s look at a scene from the forest at night, first through our own eyes, then through the eyes of the owl. Here’s the human image.

2013-9-29_0041-v2-Mouse (b) in darkened scene, human vision-Trileigh Tucker

Forest scene to human eyes

Not a lot of information here that we can use, right? Here’s how an owl might see the scene.

Owl perception of forest night scene

Simulated owl perception of forest night scene

Like other animals that are fluent in night-language, owls have eyes that are beautifully equipped to read light and shadows. How do they do this? Eyes have two different ways of interpreting light: rods are the cells in eyes that are activated just by receiving photons, and cones are tickled by specific wavelength ranges. In owl eyes, the rods are much more densely packed than those of diurnal creatures. Since color isn’t that important at night, evolution has benefitted owls by allocating more retina real estate to those cells (rods) that give them helpful night information.

Here’s another way that owls’ eyes are adapted to help them read better at night. Look at the shape of this young Barred Owl’s cornea:

Juvenile Barred Owl showing corneal curvature

Juvenile Barred Owl showing corneal curvature

His eyes’ dramatically curved shape, in combination with the widely expandable pupils you can see in the first photo, helps him gather light from many directions. When all those photons get to the very large retinas at the back of his eyes, they provide lots of information to his brain to help him read the forest to find food.

Owl eye structures

Owl eye structures

Given how important they are, it’s not surprising that the owl’s eyes take up so much space in his head that there’s only a thin divider between them—so thin that light from one eye can filter through into the other. Jerry Waldvogel has pointed out that if our eyes were proportionally the same size as the owl’s, they’d be as big as tennis balls in our heads! [2]

Finally, our owl is unusual even among birds in that the place on his retina with the sharpest vision (the fovea) is packed with rods, not cones, giving him enhanced sight where he focuses. So when the owl’s amazing hearing helps him focus on a movement in the forest scene above, he might see something like this:

A mouse in the forest!

A mouse in the forest!

And once his attention becomes riveted:

Fleeing mouse

Tonight’s dinner?

While it is the owl’s exquisite hearing that lets him finally decide where to pounce, his remarkable night vision helps him read the forest, so that he can navigate his way through and hone in on his prey’s location.

* * * * *

We used to be creatures of the night, too. Our earliest mammal ancestors lived their lives in the Mesozoic darkness—and our eyes tell that history.

As I’ve noted previously, most humans’ eyes contain three different types of color-sensing cells. Each type is most sensitive to a particular light wavelength (medium blue, green-yellow, or orange), and our brains interpret the combination of signals sent by all types to yield our sense of color. This gives us a wonderful visual dimension beyond what many mammals can perceive; for instance, dogs and cats have just two types of color sensors.

But most birds have four-color vision, generally including a separate kind of cell that is sensitive to ultraviolet. They inherited this rich way of seeing their world from their dinosaur ancestors, who probably also could see a much more colorful world than we can. Although there’s currently no way we can truly envision or simulate how it would be to see this way, I imagine that the forest scene in daylight might look something like this to such a bird (right), compared to human vision (left):

Forest view-human (L), bird (R)

Forest view-human (L), bird (R)

These birds’ eyes speak a syntax of saturation, words of hues: the ultimate “colorful language” of which we can only dream. Why did we mammals lose some of our ability to sense colors?

Because we were scared of dinosaurs.

Back in the Mesozoic when they first appeared, little mammals would have made a nice snack for a hungry dinosaur—most of whom hunted during the day.

Uh-oh. (Simulated early mammal and dinosaur. Photo and art by Trileigh Tucker.)

Uh-oh.
(Simulated early mammal and dinosaur.
Photo and art by Trileigh Tucker.)

So our ancestors scuttled into hiding places during the day and waited until darkness to emerge (tiptoeing carefully around snoring dinos), learning to hunt by night. Because our little fuzzy forebears’ fancy color vision wasn’t much use at night, space in their retinas was much more valuable for rods that could help them see in the dark, and they eventually lost two of the four types of cones they’d started with. We began our own mammalian history with vision shaped by dinosaur appetites.

Once that handy meteor winnowed out a lot of those big pesky predators and turned the rest into birds, though, mammals could creep out of the darkness and relearn how to live in light. Genetic mutations in many primates and some marsupials recreated a third type of cone, and we humans got lucky and evolved from those lines.

But our history, our dawn in Mesozoic roots, is still told by the stories in our dinosaur-shaped eyes, eyes that once spoke the “great language” of the night. As we encounter the deep gaze of the owl, we can see traces of a shared history, echoes of an ancient intimacy—an eye-Thou relationship of epochal duration.



[1] Buber, Martin, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. I and Thou by Martin Buber; a new translation with a prologue and notes by Walter Kaufmann. Simon & Schuster, 1970, p. 144.

[2] Waldvogel, Jerry A. “The bird’s eye view.” American Scientist 78, no. 4 (1990): 342-353.

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Engaging Gazes: Mysteries of Animal Presence

Tiptoeing towards the back of the clearing, I was looking for the brown creepers I’d witnessed a few days earlier, flattening themselves against the bark of the big Doug Fir. It was such strange behavior, and I was hoping to see whether there might be a nest under the thick bark.

Brown Creeper in concealment posture

Brown Creeper in concealment posture

 

Brown Creeper in concealment posture - closeup

Brown Creeper in concealment posture – closeup

I stopped a few yards from the tree, watching as silently as possible so the creepers might fly down and resume their strange posture. It took several minutes of waiting before I realized that silently watching me was a young Cooper’s Hawk, finishing a meal or just resting on top of a brush pile near the fir. I turned slowly to face him full on. He poked around the brush for a few minutes, then fly-hopped down and disappeared. Drat. I figured that in a moment I’d catch his blurred form flying to the forest across the clearing.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

But no: his head reappeared above a closer brush pile. He walked dignifiedly over it, then paused for a while. We locked gazes.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk: The Animal Gaze

What an honor, to be embraced in the gaze of a wild animal, free to flee at any moment, but who chooses to share a calm long look.

In Estes Park, Colorado over Thanksgiving, mule deer and elk similarly held me in view.

Mule Deer, Estes Park, CO

Rocky Mountain Elk, Estes Park, CO

Each of these encounters is a blessing. But the wild hawk’s gaze was particularly potent. The elk and deer are residents of the Estes Valley, adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park and populated by humans, so they’re pretty used to human contact. The young Cooper’s Hawk, though, wasn’t acclimated to close encounters of the human kind; it hadn’t been that long since he learned to fly and left his nearby natal nest, and his part of our park isn’t heavily traveled by human walkers.

Did the hawk engage my look simply because I’m something unusual in his birdy world? Or could he have recognized me as a fellow being, a creature with a mind behind the eyes, like him?

How rare it is for us humans to be encountered in the wild by an animal who seems without fear of us, and even more powerfully, to whom we are of calm interest. To see ourselves in their eyes, to be recognized in some way as having a presence, perhaps even being of a kindred nature, perhaps, ultimately, with personhood — such an experience reminds us who we are. That yes, we are giftedly animal, we belong, we too dwell here as earth-creatures in community with others whom we dearly love through the veil of species-separation.

The animal gaze has long been considered a special gift, especially the “natural zoological gaze” of an animal unconfined, in its wild native habitat [1].Some deep part of us yearns for this recognition. There is a deep wound in our souls, I think, bleeding from our sense of being torn from the animal world.

We express our yearning for animal presence in diverse ways. Tourists like to hand-feed wild sheep, interviews indicate, because they want to feel trusted by an animal who takes food from their outstretched palm [2]. A young girl is in love with dolphins, reaching out to feed them for $7 at SeaWorld – and when she forgets the rule about not moving the paper dish with the food in it, triggering an inadvertent bite as the dolphin grabs the moving dish, she prays for the dolphin’s safety, not her own [3]. People put their own lives at stake rather than evacuate without their pets during Hurricane Katrina [4].

Illuminating research is being published these days about the human-animal bond that can heal this wound: for instance, Bekoff’s Minding Animals, Frohoff and Peterson’s Between SpeciesKalof and Montgomery’s Making Animal Meaning, and large numbers of articles in scholarly journals. We’re living in a time when there’s a real resurgence of interest in this ancient archetypal relationship.

What does it take to increase our opportunities for engaging gazes with a wild, free animal?

  • Quiet presence. We have to learn to calm down ourselves, to sit still in one place, to not be alarming.
  • Familiarity with where animals live. Spend time observing animals in their habitat. Watch where they hang out and where they hide. Learn how they behave and how their behaviors vary at different times of day. Over time, with patience, we may be blessed with an animal’s acceptance of our presence.
  • Respect. We can allow an animal to recognize our presence without threatening the animal — or feeding it. Let it come to us rather than going to it, and stay still if we’re so honored. And if the animal doesn’t choose to encounter us, we respect that choice.
  • Peace. If an animal isn’t interested in us, that’s perfectly fine. What a privilege it is simply to get to watch or hear it in its own home, close up or distant!

I’ve become “engazed” with the Barred Owls in my park, who are beloved by many of my human neighbors. Some of us have had the privilege of watching these owl life-mates hunt, feed their babies, teach their growing children how to walk along high branches and how to navigate through the forest, encouraging them when they fall and welcoming them when the youngsters make it back up into a safe tree.

Barred Owl fledgling crossing forest floor, parent standing guard above

Barred Owl fledgling crossing forest floor, parent standing guard above

I visit the owls’ hangouts each time I walk in the forest, hoping to have my heart filled a little fuller by their gaze. Today, I was lucky. I left a little less animal-lonely, a little more healed.

The gaze of a Barred Owl

The gaze of a Barred Owl

Two Forest Bar(re)ds and an Urban Angel

Forest Bard 1

“I have something for you,” said the man in the floppy hat, coming up to me in the park while I was taking pictures of ruby-crowned kinglets. I’d seen him earlier but walked along a different path so I could concentrate on photography. But now here he was again, green raincoat damp from the spring “mizzle,” as we call it here in Seattle.

“Here you go,” he said, handing me a folded piece of paper. I unfolded it and read:

Nature always is there
if we but take the time
to pay attention to its rhythm.
Our tension decreases as we do.
/          /          /
Nature is the handmaiden
to the Spirit, we find God in nature.

His gift was delightful. I introduced myself and learned his name was Chris. It turns out he’s actually pretty well-known in our forest, offering his poems to passersby in the park. It occurred to me that my students might really enjoy the poem, so with Chris’s permission I took his photo to share along with his creativity.

Chris with poem (shared with permission)

My students loved the poem, and one of them said, “We should send him a thank-you note!” So we passed around a piece of paper for short messages, and I carried it with me when I walked in the forest, never knowing when I might encounter Chris again.

“I have something for you,” I told him when I saw him a few days later, and handed him the students’ note.

Chris with thank-you note from students (shared with permission)

I think he got a bit teary-eyed reading their warm response, and it probably didn’t hurt that an audience of his friends was watching all this appreciation.

A few days later I again ran into Chris.

“I have something for you,” he said, “but it’s in my car.” I needed to get back home to grade papers, so I hesitated. But when he continued, “It’s actually for your students,” I came to my senses. On our walk to the car, I learned that he’s Dublin-born Irish and not only a poet, but a true philosopher, speaking with depth and passion about life’s lasting lessons.

Out of the trunk of his car he pulled another handwritten note, this time written directly to my students, with a short story and poem composed especially for them. He wrote of kindness and the spreading ripples of gifts, and how it is in giving that we truly receive. The following day, during our last class together, I gave each of my students a copy of the message of the Forest Bard as a keepsake.

Forest Barred 2

Each time I walk in my park, I check out the overhanging pines where our resident Barred Owls hang out. I’d been getting kind of worried because I’d only seen one of the two owls regularly since we had an unexpected snow a few weeks ago. I’d even looked around on the ground after the snow melted, hoping not to find a deceased, thawing owl.

Since I’d had to detour to the parking lot for Chris to pass along his gift to my students, I ended up taking a different-than-usual route back home, which took me past the owl nest box put up three years ago by our local parks crew.

As always, I took out my binoculars to check the nest box, even though it had been unoccupied except for the occasional squirrel for almost a year. And I was astonished to see a gray arch – the top of a Barred Owl’s head!

Barred Owl nest box - tip of head visible

Barred Owl in nest box

After an unsuccessful nesting season last year, our owls are trying again. Spring is finally seeping through the wet gray forest.

Urban angel

Several years ago, I lived in a valley in another part of my city, about a half-hour walk from work. My walk took me up a substantial hill and through a variety of neighborhoods with a range of reputations.

It was an unusually clear winter morning. As I crested the hill near my workplace, thinking about the day ahead, a man in dirty clothes was hanging out on the steps of an old apartment building, leaning on a broom. I tried not to avoid him too obviously, but he called out to me, words I couldn’t make out, and showed me a gap-toothed grin. Reluctantly, I paused and asked him what he’d said. He mumbled something again.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I still didn’t catch that.”

“The mountains. Ain’t the mountains pretty this morning?”

This urban angel with subtle shimmering wings had woken me up not only to the snowy Olympic Mountains glowing through the skyscrapers on the western horizon. He’d opened my eyes to my own blindness.

^ ^ ^

Bards, barreds, urban angels. Amazing what you can learn when you’re willing to see what’s in front of you.

Sunrise on Olympic Mountains

[Chris’s story and photos are shared with his permission.]