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It’s interesting how small things can suddenly add up to a monumental event. You don’t always put the pieces of the puzzle together until the end but after it’s all said and done, it all ties in.
I was reminded of this basic rule of life just the other day. For weeks I’d been going on my daily walks in the woods and noticed a barred owl sitting high in a dead oak tree on the eastern horizon. These are big birds (21 inches in length and this guy was all of that) and relatively bulky in stature, hulking around like an old man in a dark overcoat.
He’d been hanging around these woods for some time. I would bump him from tree to tree on my walks, sometimes three or four times per trip. He flew like a big, dark kite, ominously quiet and smooth as silk. I shuddered every time I saw him, imagining what it must be like to be a squirrel or mouse and have those sharp talons thump into you.
After a few days I got used to seeing the owl and actually enjoyed his nighttime serenade: “Who-cooks-for-you?” During the day he would keep his distance, but once darkness fell he’d become bold enough to land in the big maple outside my door, sitting there and hooting enthusiastically for hours.
I even ran into him after dark while night hunting for coyotes. Dressed entirely in white and emitting the piteous calls of a dying rabbit, I’d go out in hopes of luring in a hungry fox or coyote. Twice in one week I got the creepy feeling that I wasn’t alone. Looking up, I saw the barred owl perched on a dead birch stub just a few feet away. It’s always an eerie feeling to have one of these big, winged predators appear so suddenly and so silently. I’ve met great horned owls and even a couple of snowy owls this way. They are all business, staring intently at me for a few seconds but seeing no opportunity, they fly off as silently as they came. If they weighed 100 pounds it wouldn’t be safe for any of us to go outdoors!
I don’t complain about hawks or owls showing up while I’m calling. They eat rabbits, too, and that means my calls are at least good enough to attract feathered carnivores. Every so often I’ll have a hawk and an owl come in, and right behind them will be a fox or coyote. Deer aren’t the only critters that have a hard time finding food in winter.
It had been several days since I’d seen the owl and so I had forgotten about him. Few wild critters feel comfortable around human habitation and so I figured that he’d moved on. I gave it no thought as I went about my business. His presence had been observed and duly noted, and most of the time that’s the extent of my wildlife interactions.
But, one recent morning I was lingering at the kitchen table with a last cup of wake-up tea, enjoying the antics of chickadees, nuthatches and a red squirrel at the feeder. All was serenity and contentment as the birds took turns at the sunflower seeds and the squirrel poked around underneath for his share. Suddenly (and I mean in the blink of an eye) the owl was on the ground, the hapless squirrel clutched in his talons. The dark bird’s great wings were spread wide like a cloak, and the glance he gave me sent a clear message: This squirrel is mine! Just as quickly the owl flew off, the lifeless squirrel dangling from his right foot.
The smaller birds sat on bare limbs, stunned into silence, and so was I. The forgotten owl had been biding his time, waiting for the right moment to make his move, and the normally alert red squirrel never saw it coming. Once again the “real world” came knocking, a shocking reminder that no matter where you are on the food chain, something is there waiting to devour you.
Apparently the last storm had predators working overtime because the owl wasn’t the only one on a mission. At sunrise Sunday morning I saw a gorgeous red fox run across the middle of the hay field, a dead mouse in its mouth. It could be that he’s busily feeding a den full of pups but foxes normally don’t give birth till March, so I’m guessing he was just going to find a nice, safe, quiet spot to devour his prey. I may back track him to see where the action took place, and then follow his trail to see where he ended up. A fox can travel 20 miles or more in its wanderings, but I’m not going to go that far. It’s his mouse now and he’s welcome to it!
I’ve mentioned before that snow is the ultimate story board for wildlife study. All mammals and even some birds leave evidence of their winter travels behind. I followed the neat ++++++ tracks of a ruffed grouse for about 50 yards to where they ended at an exposed stump. The feathery pattern of the bird’s wing tips was perfectly etched in the fine snow on either side of the stump. I thought he might be picking buds in one of the many poplars along the trail, so I turned around and went home. Grouse season ended weeks ago, but he has plenty of other things to fear besides me. We’ll meet again next fall and test the predator-prey relationship once again.
There are many clues and tips that reveal what our wild neighbors are doing, and their only goal in winter is survival: some will, some won’t, and that’s nature’s way.
Humans, of course, have other things to worry about – no owls are going to carry us off and no fox is going to pounce on us – but we all have reason enough to look over our shoulders once in a while!
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