Posted by: trevormeers | April 6, 2010

Neighbor Trouble

Just as a Saturday sunrise readied to transform the sky from a warm glow to a bright glare, I passed by the bedroom window. Absently glancing through the woods at the neighbor’s house, I saw a neighbor staring back.

He was no more than a rounded shape, hunched on a limb and silhouetted against the coming dawn. Instantly processing the shape and the time of day, my brain spat out “owl!” But in this light, he was little more than a dim shape. I raced to the closet for the binoculars (kept handy for spotting antlers on deer crossing the cornfield out back) and returned to the window. I raised the glasses and found the owl. As I dialed him into clarity with the binoculars’ focus wheel, I was startled by the gaze of deep black eyes the size of quarters boring into me like the muzzles of heavy-caliber rifles. Anchoring the eyes was the orange hook of a beak. Even from 30 yards away, they seemed to drive outward with a force that threatened to push me back, like the gaze of a weathered old Marine I once met in a Utah canyon.

The owl watched me for a long minute, then something more pressing caught his ear, and he spun his head around until he was looking directly backward, or so it seemed. Then the head swiveled nearly all the way in the other direction, spinning atop twice as many neck vertebra as humans have, until he was looking over his left shoulder.

We watched each other for a while in the silence, his gaze returning to fix on me when nothing else held his attention. At one point, he seemed to rise up on his toes, as if his targeting system had locked onto some field mouse about to start the journey toward owl pellet. But then he settled back, smoothed his feathers and went back to staring me down.

I know only two owls by sight: the great-horned, with its obvious, Batman-like tufts, and the barn owl, with an eerie heart-shape face to match its unnerving call. The neighbor was neither of these, so I filed his face mentally and went looking later to give him an ID. I found websites full of owl lineups, like a perp walk of suspected mouse killers. The spotted owl looked like my bird, but since I don’t live anywhere the home of grunge music, I kept looking. Finally I came to the barred owl, a dead ringer for the neighbor. It’s always satisfying to call nature by its name, speaking of wild bergamot and schist and barred owls instead of weeds and rocks and big birds. I listened to recordings of his call online to be sure I’d recognize his voice. It’s the distinctive “Who cooks for YOU?” I’d learned for making wild turkeys gobble and reveal themselves before dawn. An easy voice to remember.

A shape darted across the binoculars, and the owl ducked his head and ruffled his feathers. The blue jays had launched a strafing run, diving at the owl’s head and chattering loudly enough to be heard through the window’s glass. I hated to see it. The scowling owl was built to intimidate—his plastic likeness hangs in barns everywhere to keep pigeons from pooping all over the tractors—and now a flock of local punks was actually making him cower.

Blue jays, almost everyone knows, are notoriously lousy neighbors. They rob the eggs and chicks from other birds’ nests, just like the similarly infamous magpie out west. Blue jays were the one bird my Dad used to tell me I could shoot on sight with my BB gun. It was shameful to see an owl taking this from them.

But, as with most of our troublesome neighbors, there’s a bit more to the blue jays’ story. While Googling for owl identifications, I looked up the blue jays, too. Although jays are known to prey on dying birds, eggs and nestlings, a Cornell study revealed that when the stomachs of 530 blue jays were examined, just six held traces of eggs and baby birds. Too bad for the 524 innocent blue jays that paid the price to generally exonerate the species.

As for their owl heckling, I learned that blue jays are known for tight familial bonds. And that the barred owl bistro regularly includes smaller birds. The barred owl even has its own turf issues. While great horned owls will prey on the barred owl and drive them out of Dodge, the barred owl regularly pushes the endangered spotted owl out of its home woods. Loggers aren’t the only ones to blame for all those save-the-spotted-owl campaigns a few years back.

After a minute or so, the owl had enough of the blue jays’ flybys, spread his wings and slowly flew toward the rising sun. The jeering cries of the jays filled the woodlot for the day. But I knew that come nightfall, the voice would again be asking who cooks for you, and the deep black eyes would turn toward our window once more.

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