For the last few months, I’ve been watching a pair of small owls hunting at dusk in the neighborhood.
While they’ve spent the bulk of their early evening hunts flying into and out of the horse chestnut tree across the street, the pair seems especially to hanker for mice in the backyard next door. That house is empty, the yard a brown tangle of beds gone fallow and some iron monkey bar-looking structures. From the back deck, while I’ve watched the owls’ tandem swoops in the gloaming, I’ve come to know their calls to each other. The lilting tremolo, the barking chuck, the soft hoots.
Early last week I was in the backyard watering when I heard a low, bouncing whinny. It was mid-day. I looked up into the maple and spied a grayish mass on one branch, roughly the size of a housecat, and thought maybe Arturo, bigger than ever, had reasserted himself as the squirrel yard boss. But it was no rodent squatting on the branch of the maple. It was three screech owlets who sat huddled together, their feathers still a tufted, downy gray. They sat blinking sleepily, leaning against one another while I had a proper look at them and while their parents stood guard not too far away, chirping at them, no doubt, not to engage with the human.
Over the course of last week the babies filled out. Their feathered ear tufts darkened a little and their yellow eyes remained open much of the day. I stood below their roost and made conversation while they stared unblinking, occasionally responding by swaying and bobble-heading, trying to get a bead on what sort of threat I was.
In the scheme of their life span, the owlets are pre-pubescent. After they hatch, they learn everything they need to know in five weeks. This week they are awake much of the day, begging to get off their branch and go do something even though the sun is high. The adults admonish, hush them by cleaning their feathers, let them shuffle to another branch, maybe chirp at the squirrels who roughhouse nearby. Sometimes the owlets split up and sit alone. From where I stand on the ground, I can’t tell the adults from their young now. They blink down at me, unfazed. They’ve got my number.
Aware that I’m at risk of sentimental anthropomorphizing, I know their presence in town is just nature adapting. Still, I feel lucky they’ve chosen our tree in which to spend their days, and even luckier that I can witness them leave this perch to go hunting. Well before dusk the owlets register their discontent, flap their wings, peck at each other. In the loud correction of the adults there is exasperation, as if to say, “We are sit-and-wait predators. When you can perfect that, we’ll see about driving.”
A half hour or so after the sun goes down, one of the adults leaves first and flies to the fence and then calls for the owlets to stay behind. There’s a lot of thrashing and tomfoolery in the branches. The babies fight, fidget, bark out into the night for the adults. They want to fly, and they can – they navigate within the branches of the big maple just fine. But it’s not yet time for them to hunt solo.
Their impatience is raucous.
At our own house we are teaching Owen, 15, how to drive. Being a passenger with him is alternately terrifying and rewarding. He insists that he’s an excellent driver already, that we’ve got nothing to worry about, but he has trouble with road awareness. He hugs the white line and argues that he IS in the middle of the lane when I suggest that’s the best place for success. I’m white noise, a goathead pricker in his sock, a dog whistle he cannot hear. He’s impatient to take the reigns of his life, raucous and flapping like those owlets, who, each night, get less and less obedient about following directions.
Last night, a full moon, the owlets flitted out of the tree as soon as their parents left and took their squabbling to the roof of our house, to the top of the neighbor’s van. I could hear one of the adults talking to them a few yards over. After short consultation, the babies decided they had better get home. Breakfast was on the way.
The moon rose higher, illuminating the show in the backyard. Three mice in an hour, a good haul. Food in the belly quieted the owlets in the maple. The adults flew off into the night. I’m not sure how much longer they’ll be in our yard.
Soon, the babies will be off in the world, hunting in the backyards of other streets, finding mates of their own, and these will be monogamous and long-term relationships. Owen, too. I try to remind myself that he IS doing it right. He’ll learn best by trying, by possibly failing, by sometimes succeeding. His flight is about to be out of his parents’ hands.
I wonder if the owl adults have an impending sense that their work of the season will soon be over. If, after dawn, when they’ve been up all night hunting, they wonder whether their efforts will build self-sustaining offspring who are smart enough to avoid death by hawks, by cars, by razed habitats. If they fret that their teachings, even now, are falling away and growing smaller in the rearview mirror.