We met a Barn Owl this week. We liked him, but he didn’t care for us. As a matter of fact, when your author walked in to our store where the local animal rescue people had brought it for educational purposes, the owl lowered its head and shook it in the universally recognized shake of disapproval. The rescuers of the owl told me not to take it personally, but I knew better. That owl was rescued after an encounter with a high voltage electrical line which it would not have encountered were it not for humanity’s insatiable desire for electricity. He had no use for me or any other of my fellow Homo sapiens, except possibly for those who rescued him and now care for him.
The rescuers assured us the owl was “toe dusting.” Fairly new to its role as a teacher of humans, the owl was stressed and toe dusting was the physical sign of that stress. Ornithologists hold that Barn Owls lower their heads and shake it over their talons, either as an aggressive signal or as a defensive behavior.
I don’t believe it. They do it as a message of disapproval, just like that herbaceous Mountain Goat on the Olympian Peninsula in Washington State a few weeks ago when it gored a man in the leg and then stood over the man until he bled to death. The animals are getting angry with us and who can blame them?
But even if it was threatening me, that owl has the softest eyes of any bird I’ve ever seen up close. Mind you, if I were a field mouse or a vole scuttling across a snow field on a cold, crystalline night and looked up when that owl’s shadow crossed the snow I doubt that I would find anything soft about those eyes. I would see the eyes of a minister of death. And that shadow I would see the instant before my death would be the first clue I had that an owl was anywhere nearby: Owls are about the only land-dwelling animals who never make a sound they don’t intend to make.
But I was in no danger from the owl, and I loved his eyes. They reminded me of Edward Howe Forbush springing to the defense of Barn Owls in his magisterial Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States. Defending them from unjust persecution, he called them “benefactors to mankind.”
Like Forbush, I may be susceptible to emotional projection and may have mirrored my own consciousness when I looked in those eyes, but I don’t believe that either. Those were the wise eyes of an old soul looking out at me.
The rescuers also brought a Merlin with them. Nothing soft about a Merlin’s eyes I can assure you. Falcon eyes put one in mind of Yeats’ horseman,
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!