The owl and I

 

"I rejoice that there are owls," Henry David Thoreau once wrote. For 30 years, I had no idea what he meant. I grew up in Los Angeles, and if owls soared the smoggy skies, I never saw them. Only after moving to Oregon did I learn the word "raptor." Intrigued by these magnificent, carnivorous birds, I volunteered at the Cascades Raptor Center, a three-acre wildlife hospital and nature education facility.

"Why not learn to train Lorax?" asked Jean, a longtime center educator. She'd noted my curiosity about her work, and agreed to teach me how to handle the resident great horned owl.

Lorax had arrived at the center when she was three weeks old, looking like a yellow-eyed dust bunny with a beak. She'd fallen 35 feet from her nest, breaking a wing in several places. Without perfect flight, a raptor will starve and die. Raised among us, Lorax had become human-habituated — a perfect education bird. We stepped into her spacious outdoor enclosure, and she chirruped and nuzzled Jean's hair with her beak.

"What does Lorax think of me?" I stood very straight and attempted to hoot. The effort caused me to double over in a choking fit. Lorax sailed to a high perch on the opposite end of the enclosure. I'd hoped to radiate the wisdom and self-assurance of the goddess Minerva with her owl, but looking into my bird's eyes, I saw what she was thinking.

What a rookie.

"Just observe Lorax for now," Jean suggested. "Watch her body language."

For weeks, I peered anxiously at the bird. What did it mean when her feathered horns jutted upward, or when she clacked her beak? Could her talons pierce my arm, sending a spray of blood across my white T-shirt? I stood in her cage, in lipstick and designer jeans, while she eyed my dangling earrings as if my lobes bore twin rodents.

I learned to gauge her emotions. If I banged the enclosure door or spoke loudly, she flattened her feathered horns like the ears on a disgruntled cat. When I appeared with an elbow-length glove on my left hand, she let out a high-pitched chatter.

"She's not ready for me to hold her," I squeaked to Jean. "Is she?"

Jean smiled. "Touch the leather jesses around her legs," she advised. "Get her used to being so close."

Heart pounding, I reached toward the powerful blond-feathered feet and grasped the thin straps that attached to metal swivels clipped to my glove. Lorax clacked her beak, echoing the anxiety I felt over our relationship.

"You're ready to put her on your arm," Jean decided. "Nudge the top of her legs, and she'll step up."

"Oh … my ... God!" I whispered. Trembling, I touched her legs, and she stepped onto my arm.

At a year old, Lorax stood 2 feet tall and weighed 4 pounds. Her solidity pulled me out of my urban angst and into the green and leafy present. She clacked her beak disapprovingly if my arm wasn't solid as a fir branch, and squealed at my awkward, jerking movements. At my first festival, I stood rigid beside Jean with Lorax foreign and frightened on my arm. "I can't relax!" I wailed. "I grew up in L.A.!"

Soon after, I had a terrible day. My cat was diagnosed with diabetes, my sister and I had an argument, and a yellowjacket stung me in the face. I fled work, biked to the raptor center, ducked into Lorax's cage and collapsed on a plastic chair. "Everything's going wrong," I wailed to her. "I'm exhausted. I'm a bad sister. And my face hurts!" I buried my head in my hands and burst into tears. I felt, rather than heard, the gentle flap of wings beside me. Mournfully, I glanced up to see Lorax standing next to my chair. She didn't beg. She ignored her yellow rubber duck floating in her water trough. She simply looked at me and chirruped.

Later, I reported to Jean. "I felt like she was telling me to keep a stiff upper … well … beak."

She studied me. "You're ready to take her out on your own."

"Really?" I yelped.

"Think like an owl," Jean said and disappeared into the clinic.

Alone, I approached Lorax in her enclosure. As she stepped onto my arm, I listened for the sounds that upset her: the jingle of dog tags, crying children, the dreaded rumble of the UPS truck. Her wings became my wings as we navigated the doorway, her tail feathers mine as we circumvented an oak. This creature had once represented untouchable beauty on a distant perch, but abruptly, I comprehended her.

We stood in the pavilion, and I — intent on conveying to visitors the magnificence of the owl on my glove — forgot to put on lipstick, or even feel nervous. Jean wandered out and listened as I explained to three boys that Lorax is an ambassador for great horned owls in the wild.

"We want you to meet her up close so you'll protect her friends' territory," I said, my outstretched arm as steady as my voice.

After the boys wandered off to look at other owls, hawks, eagles and falcons, Jean approached me. "Nice work," she said.

My movements, as I returned to her enclosure, were slow, deliberate. Lorax gazed languidly at me as I unlocked the door with one hand. She sat still on her perch as I deftly unclipped the metal swivels from her jesses, then bent her head and nuzzled my hair with her beak.

Outwardly, I remained calm. Within, I rejoiced.

Freelance writer Melissa Hart teaches journalism at the University of Oregon. Learn more about the Cascades Raptor Center at www.eraptors.org.

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