A country cousin visits the big city

by Seth Shteir




Many people dread a call from their mechanic, since it usually means spending more money -- perhaps the transmission really is shot or a battery has to be replaced. But recently, after my partner picked up her car, I received a call from our mechanic about a very different subject.

Our answering machine picked up the call. “Hi Seth. It’s Jerry. I know you care about birds, and I bet Maria told you about the owl hanging out in our shop. Why don’t you come by and see it?” Maria had mentioned the owl, but I was tired after teaching energetic fourth-and-fifth graders, and I guessed that the owl was a bird some Harry Potter enthusiast had purchased, found was too much trouble and released. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual event.

But curiosity got the better of me, and I grabbed the phone and got hold of Jerry before he closed. What do you catch an owl with? I quickly assembled what I thought would be good owl-catching equipment: a blanket, thick gloves, a yellow pillowcase and a string tie. It was close to dark when we pulled into the garage and found Jerry, who pointed to the lip of the garage door. Sure enough, 12 feet above a dirty white Volvo and pools of standing oil, stood a small owl.

Though the light was dim, I immediately realized that this owl was no Harry Potter pet. It was a small bird with white eye rings and a mottled brown and white breast. A wave of excitement washed over me as I realized that the bird was the endangered burrowing owl.

What on earth was a burrowing owl doing in one of the most densely populated areas of Los Angeles? The last time I saw a burrowing owl had been on a spring trip to the Kern National Wildlife Refuge in California’s Central Valley. Maria and I had risen before dawn, gulped down black coffee at the local Denny’s and drove to the refuge just as crimson morning light washed over the valley like a spilled glass of pink grapefruit juice.

We had taken the refuge’s auto tour and seen numerous birds; then, just as we were leaving, I noticed a small bird perched atop a fencepost. “Owl!” I shouted, and Maria slammed on the brakes. The car skidded to a stop, but the noise spooked the owl, which flew to a nearby fencepost. The morning light illuminated the owl like a specimen on a pedestal at a museum. It was a burrowing owl and rare, now, as its grassland habitat makes way for development. It watched us with furtive yellow eyes before spreading her wings and gliding into a small bush.

It’s one thing to observe a burrowing owl at a wildlife refuge and quite another to see one hanging out between Kountry Folks Restaurant and Galpin Ford. Jerry mentioned that he’d first noticed the owl after a truck had come in from Chatsworth, a community that borders on parkland outside the city. Could the burrowing owl have hitched a ride?

We decided that the best thing to do this time of night would be to encourage the owl to fly out of the garage and hope it found its way to the desert and scrubland that surrounds the San Fernando Valley. Jerry attached the pillowcase to a long metal tool and waved it like a flag near the perched owl.

This worked: The owl spread its wings and made a pass over the shop’s hydraulic lift before disappearing into the night sky. I thought I saw the owl clear the L-shaped auto complex and vanish into the darkness, but I wasn’t sure. We walked toward some lighted garages nearby and asked if the mechanics had seen a bird. The guys shook their heads, more absorbed in a cherry red convertible they were repairing than the swoop of a small owl.

Did our owl successfully make its way back to its still remaining habitat on the outskirts of the San Fernando Valley? We’ll never know. I did learn one lesson, though: The next time your mechanic calls you, it isn’t always bad news.

Seth Shteir is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a teacher and conservation chair of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society in Los Angeles. © High Country News