Living along the parade route in a small village is often an invitation for unexpected visitors on Memorial Day, so I usually keep a few extra beers and cold cuts in the fridge. But long after the festivities yesterday, I entertained a small crowd of the most unusual guests who required neither a cold brew nor a quick bite. Perched in the large sugar maple growing just a few feet from both my front porch and the road were seven pint-sized screech owls.
A hot, humid afternoon, my companion Mary and I were languidly rocking on the porch and reading poetry when I looked up and thought I saw a deformity in a tree branch. Concerned I might need an arborist with a pruning saw to avert damage to the house or injury to sidewalk pedestrians, I got up to take a look. “It’s an owl,” I marveled. “No, it’s two owls.” Mary rose abruptly and began peering at the branch. “You’re wrong,” she said. “It’s three, make that five.” Eventually we spotted seven owls, two rufous hued adults and five lighter colored and fuzzy looking youngsters.
We were transfixed and suddenly suffused with perfect joy, as if we had been given a fabulous gift. For over two hours, as late day faded to dusk, we watched the owls, taking pictures and alerting friends, neighbors, and passers by to share in our good fortune. The tenor of the day had gone from quiet and routine to wondrous and sublime. These small creatures standing about eight inches tall had transformed the shape of time.
Naturalist Jay Kaplan swung by for a look, and I asked why there would be seven screech owls in my tree. “Why not,” he replied matter-of-factly. Apparently, these small raptors adjust well to humanity as long as there are sufficient trees. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website calls the birds “cosmopolitan,” noting that “suburban birds often survive better than their rural kin, as suburbs provide more prey, milder climates, and fewer predators.” Primarily hunting at night, they eat a wide variety of small birds and mammals as well as invertebrates like worms and insects. They find homes in tree cavities and accept nest boxes.
We watched as they blinked at us with wide eyes and dozed in the drowsy heat. Occasionally, they stretched a wing, preened, snuggled up to each other or hopped along the branch, all to our childlike amazement. Mostly they just hung out while we gawked like star-struck teens. Once in a while, one of the adults gave a soft, tremulous, and haunting call that almost sounded like mournful cooing. It was eerily penetrating. But most astonishing was the way in which their brownish, tawny, and darker coloration with its elaborate pattern of bands and spots blended so well with the tree bark that they were hard to see even when knowing where they were. At times they seemed to melt back into the tree even as we stared.
Memorial Day is a time of remembrance and gratitude for those who gave that proverbial “last full measure” for our freedoms. It is good and right that we annually commemorate their sacrifice. And sometimes there are simple signs and wonders that make you realize how grateful you are to enjoy those hard won liberties, like the miracle of a free and wild creature near at hand.