The story of the Spirit Owl is simple but eerie. One cold afternoon in the late winter of 2005, I glance out the office window of the Berkshire Hills farm where I work, and sitting in the branches of a crabapple tree not twenty feet from the front door is this beautiful, deadly-eyed owl. I point it out to my employer, the wisewoman and herbalist, who tells me straight-facedly that this owl’s presence comes as no surprise—it is a messenger, a bearer of news from the spirit world, and she has seen it here before, years ago, sitting in that very same tree. I don’t believe her. But I get my camera and go downstairs to take a picture. This owl has nerves of steel. I step out the front door and inch closer, pressing the shutter intermittently, a little too chilly and too freaked out by the whole situation to get a steady shot. Only when I am practically on top of it does the owl perform a stately turn and swoop silently off into the pines.
All this happens in broad daylight, mind you.
I go home that night and get out my bird books, determined to find a rational explanation for the owl’s uncanny behavior. National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region has the following to say about strix varia:
This owl is most often seen by those who seek it out in its dark retreat, usually a thick grove of trees in lowland forest. There it rests quietly during the day, coming out at night to feed on rodents, birds, frogs, and crayfish.
In other words, barred owls are nocturnal—they don’t come out in daylight.
The next day, in defiance of its very nature, the owl is back again, sitting on the same branch staring at the door, at me peeking through it, exactly as though it expects me to shed my human disguise and fly off with it into the shadows. And it’s there again the day after that.
What does it mean? What does it want from me? Why won’t it look away?
But on the fourth day, the owl doesn’t return. With the immediate affront to my rational sensibilities removed, my feeling of ontological horror fades. After a few weeks, I give myself permission to dismiss it and go on about my life. And that was the end of it. Or so I thought.
Now it’s almost exactly three years later—the early spring of 2008. I show up at work this morning, glance out the office window, and there’s the owl again. In the same damn tree, practically on the same branch. Only this time, it doesn’t quite seem to want to meet my eye. As though it were ashamed of me.
Is it the same owl? It can’t be. How long do owls live? Kept in captivity, according to this site, barred owls have been known to survive up to twenty-three years.
It sure looks like the same owl.
I took a picture (much nicer this time, if I do say so myself), and compared it with the blurry photo of three years ago, and compared that with a murky, distant picture I found in the archives, which my boss snapped when the owl first visited in the early spring of 2002. It’s hard to say with the older photo, but the two shots I took are practically identical. I compare them with the identification photo in the Audubon guide, and there, the distinction is clear: our owl has the same penetrating, coal-black eyes, the same mottled pattern on the breast, but it’s sleeker, with less rust color in the feathers, more white. A quick google image search confirms this: barred owls look alike, but there is quite a bit of variation between individuals. All of which leads me to only one conclusion.
It’s the same owl.
What the hell is going on? Is this truly, as the wise-woman suggests, an owl of ill omen? Is it some restless ghost that returns to the site on the anniversary of its grisly murder? Is it the spirit of an ancestor in animal disguise, come to watch over my shoulder and make sure I dot all my i’s and close all my HTML tags?
Actually, I’ve been thinking about this since I got home, and I believe I have the answer. Most of it, anyway. Enough to preserve my rationalist worldview for now. It’s the three year cycle in the owl’s eerie pattern that really throws me. But even that too can be explained away, with a stretch. If you’re of the ilk who’d prefer to think magic is real, well, just don’t read past the cut.
The farmhouse where I work is pretty old, built in 1850. It has mice. And it so happens that there’s something else besides the owl’s crabapple tree within 20 feet of the kitchen door: the compost heap. Which, in a place that brews its own herbal medicines, is still in active use even in the dead of winter. I figure the mice have all kinds of little tunnels running between the foundation of the house and the compost—but once they reach the heap, they’re obliged, however briefly, to leave the safety of their icy warrens and make a mad dash for the delicious, steamy-hot, leftover herbs. The owl knows this. Late in the winter, she has a hard time finding easy prey elsewhere in the woods—all the toads and crawdaddies are deep in hibernation, and with such a heavy snow cover on the ground, the rodent side of her diet can tunnel about with impunity. So maybe, just maybe, once every few years, when the winter has been particularly harsh, our owl gets hungry enough to risk coming within twenty feet of human habitation—even in broad daylight (which just happens to be the only time when the humans are around to dump leftover herbs on the compost heap).
That’s the best explanation I can come up with. The best, anyway, that doesn’t involve hallucinatory prophecy and the ghosts of the ancestors.
If you’ve got a better one I’d love to hear it.