19 October 2020

 The woods were very quiet, and It was very dark. Downed branches and other forest debris made walking tricky, and he stumbled a number of times. Still, he didn’t want to turn on his light until the last minute. The element of surprise was important. He was halfway over a fallen log when…

    “Hoo Ah!!”

    He lost his footing, fell over the log, and his shotgun slipped his grasp and fell somewhere out of sight in the dark.

    “Holy shit! What was that?” he asked the darkness.

    “Just me,” said the barred owl, for that’s who was perched just a few feet above his head. “Interesting comment. I’ve never thought of excrement as… Well, that’s just an aside. You know us owls, always sitting around, thinking. I remember that verse one of you wrote:

“The wise old owl sat in an oak

The more he saw, the less he spoke.

The less he spoke, the more he heard.

What aren’t you like that wise old bird?”

    “Oh, there I go rambling, again. Too much time on my hands, I guess. Anyway, sorry if I startled you, but I suspected you were looking for me, but were going to walk right by if I didn’t announce myself.”

    The man was trying to keep his eye on the owl, while he looked for his fallen shotgun.

    “A little to your left,” advised the owl, helpfully.

    The man quickly grabbed the gun, and swung around to point it at the owl’s chest. They were so close to one another that the barrel was almost touching feathers. Instead of flying, the bird opened its wings, puffed out its breast, and said, “Hit me with your best shot.”

     Nonplussed, the human hesitated. “What the fuck are you doing? First, you help me find the shotgun, then you dare me to shoot you. Owls aren’t supposed to act that way!”

   The owl chuckled. (Actually, owls don’t chuckle very well. It made a few little hooting sounds that came out sort of like a chuckle.) “You sound like the guy in that James T. Fields’ poem, ‘The Owl Critic’.”

   It was too dark to see the man’s expression, and he didn’t respond.

  “You know the one I mean,” said the owl. “The guy goes into a barbershop and sees what he thinks is a stuffed owl, and starts criticizing the taxidermist. ‘I’ve studied owls and other night fowls,’ says the guy. ‘An owl cannot roost with its limbs so unloosed.’ Ha ha. ‘He can’t do it because it’s against all bird laws.’ Ha ha!. The owl gets up and walks away! Get it?”

   Still nothing. If it wasn’t for a little moonlight glinting off the shotgun barrel, the owl might have thought he was alone.

   “Look,” said the owl. “Let’s start over. I’m usually not so garrulous, and I’m not being brave or foolhardy. I think it was just the adrenalin talking. I’ve never had a shotgun pressed against my sternum.”

   “And I’ve never talked to an owl,” said the man, as he lowered the shotgun.

   The owl sighed. (Well, something like a sigh.) “Thanks. That feels a lot better. Still, I’ve gotta say it. How could you know how an owl would behave under these circumstances? I understand you’ve shot quite a few…”

   “Close to 3,000,” the man interrupted. “Well, not just me. There are several of us.”

   “That’s a lot. It includes a few from my own family, and quite a few friends and acquaintances. But shooting an owl out of the top of a tall tree must be a little different than having one at arm’s length, talking to you. I repeat, you can’t really know how an owl should react.”

   “Point taken,” said the man, as he once again raised the shotgun.

   “Okay, but before you blow me to kingdom come, tell me why you’re doing it. It doesn’t seem like it’s just recreation for you. We owls are not into the ‘bloody flesh and sport’ business, as John Muir called it. We just kill for food, not fun. But it doesn’t seem like this is just fun for you, either.”

   “Well, of course it isn’t!” The man was clearly offended. “We’re killing you to save the spotted owl.”

   [An aside from the narrator: I wish it wasn’t quite so dark in the woods. I can only guess what’s happening during the silences. There was a silence here of maybe a minute.]

   “Okay,” said the owl, finally. “I’m not following this very well. How does killing me help my cousins?”

   “You’re invaders. You shouldn’t be here.”

   “I’m sure the Native Americans said the same thing about your ancestors. The ancient Brits must have had similar feelings about the Romans, and the Palestinians against the Israelis. I doubt that many people in Europe took kindly to Napoleon or Alexander the Great. But let’s stick to the point; why have you killed 3,000 barred owls?”

   “Almost 3,000,” said the voice in the dark.

   “Right; almost 3,000. But let me repeat…”

   “Wait a minute,” said the man. There was a little movement, and the moonlight no longer reflected off the shotgun barrel. The owl assumed the man had lowered it. “Okay, I don’t know how much of this you can understand…”

   The owl made a rude noise.

   “But it’s elementary,” continued the man, undeterred. “You come out of nowhere, and invade the spotted owls’ habitat. They aren’t as adaptable as your kind, and you compete them right out of existence. The only way to save the spotted owls – the rightful residents of these forests – is to get rid of you barred owls – the interlopers.

   It was dark and quiet for a few moments. “Okay, whoa. Let me think,” said the owl.

   He thought.

   “Okay. Now, I don’t know how much you can understand…”

   The man made a rude noise.

   “Right; uncalled for. I’ll try to keep this civil. Okay. Now, I assume you’re a biologist of some sort, maybe with a degree in wildlife management…”

   “Two degrees,” interrupted the man, “And working on a third.”

   ‘Congratulations; clearly a learned man. However, I think you missed a lesson or two along the way.”

   “What lessons?” Even in the dark, it was clear that the biologist was feeling insulted.

   “Well, let’s take this interloper business first. I’m not an alien, I’m a native – conceived here, hatched here, raised here. So were my parents, my grandparents, my great grandparents, and probably a number of other ‘grands’ before them. I’m almost 10 years old – a pretty long life for a barred owl – and I’ve added a few younger generations of my own. In truth, rather than ‘appearing out of nowhere,’ we barred owl have been here longer than you’ve been alive. There weren’t a lot of us at first, but those numbers are grown substantially over time. How many barred owls do you think there are in the Pacific Northwest?”

   “I have no idea,” said the biologist.

   “Neither do I,” said the owl, “but you’ve killed ‘almost’ 3,000 in one little area…”

   “Three study areas,” interrupted the biologist.

   “Okay, three little areas. But barred owls are now found throughout western British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, and northern California – millions of acres of forest with maybe millions of owls. How many of us do you expect to kill?”

   “Well, sure; it’s going to be a big job, but what else can we do? You’re taking over all the spotted owl habitat.”

   “Okay, stop right there,” said the owl. “That brings me to my second point. This is not spotted owl habitat. Do you know what an ‘obligate species’ is? No, check that. Of course, you do. You’re a Ph.D. candidate. But… “ And here the owl raised its voice dramatically, “For anybody else in these woods that doesn’t know, an obligate species is one that almost always – like, 99 percent of the time – can exist only in a very specific habitat. For spotted owls in the Northwest, that means old growth coniferous forest. This is a nice forest, but it’s a nice barred owl forest, not spotted owl habitat. Truth be told, there’s not much spotted owl habitat left, and what there is exists in little blocks hardly big enough to support one owl, let alone a population.”

   “But… “

  “No, wait; let me finish. We barred owls are not an obligate species. We can – and do – exist in a lot of types of forest. That’s why we’re so widespread. But we’re not old growth birds. We’ve come only because you humans have eradicated most of the spotted owl habitat, and replaced it with nice, new barred owl habitat. ‘Invading’ is a purposeful act; we’re not invaders, we’ve just followed the habitat. As a species, we may be opportunists, but we are not spotted owl displacers. Get rid of us all, and you still won’t have spotted owls here. To paraphrase one of your Presidents, ‘It’s the habitat, stupid!’[1]

   There was a break in the conversation here, presumably as the biologist mulled over what the owl had been saying. But, then again, maybe not.

   “Not to change the subject,” said the biologist, as he changed the subject, “But what was that ‘Hoo Ah’ thing you did when I first got here?”

   “That was just part of a normal barred owl call that you’ve heard many times, I imagine. In New England, they used to call us ‘eight hooters:’ you know, ‘who who who-who, who who who-whoah. The ‘ah’ is just a part of the eighth note. You don’t hardly recognize it when we give the complete call. If we do the ‘hoo ah’ by itself, and you’re not expecting it,  it can be pretty startling.”

   “I’ll say!” exclaimed the biologist. “Getting back to the present situation, however: you make some interesting points, but I’m still going to shoot barred owls – starting with you.” He raised the shotgun.

   “Of course, you are. It’s too late to change your Ph.D. project. No, wait; I take that back. Cheap shot. You do it because you want to save the spotted owl, and you don’t know any other way.

   “That’s right,” agreed the biologist, as he adjusted his aim (which wasn’t too big a deal, at that short distance).

   “I marvel,” said the owl, “at how smart and how stupid humans can be at the same time, and how short-sighted. This whole owl-shooting idea originated with the timber industry. They cut most of the old growth forests with no thought of spotted owls, or anything else in the future. They wanted to cut the rest, but they needed a scapegoat – a villain – to divert attention from their continued destruction of spotted owl habitat. The Government – not at the peak of their ecological conscience, or their reliance on Science – is going along with them. Bye bye, spotted owls.”

   “Nevertheless,” said the biologist, as he began to squeeze the trigger.

   “Whoo Ah!” bellowed the owl.

   When the biologist had picked himself up off the forest floor, and relocated his fallen shotgun, the barred owl was long gone.


 *  *  *


[1] The owl wasn’t paraphrasing a U. S. President. In the 1992 Presidential campaign, James Carville – Bill Clinton’s campaign manager – came up with the phrase “It’s the economy, Stupid.” The owl wasn’t paraphrasing – using different words to say the same thing; he just borrowed some of the language to present an entirely different idea. Be that as it may, the owl liked the sound of the phrase, and I understand that he used it regularly, after that.

*  *  *

I wish the story behind this fantasy was also a fantasy. Unfortunately, it’s all too real. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been funding a $5 million “study” to see what happens to spotted owls when 3,600 barred owls are removed from the Pacific Northwest forests. Sometimes, I find it embarrassing to admit that I worked for the agency for 34 years.


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